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Russia: Moscow May Intervene In Caspian Dispute

  • Michael Lelyveld

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the use of force in the Caspian Sea "impermissible," suggesting that Moscow may take a role in the dispute between Iran and Azerbaijan. As the strongest naval power in the region, Russia may be raising new concerns for Tehran. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 3 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A majority of Caspian Sea nations showed signs of unity on border issues yesterday, while Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a warning against the use of force.

The informal summit of CIS leaders at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi provided a break from Caspian tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan. The neighboring countries have been on edge since 23 July, when an Iranian gunboat threatened two Azerbaijani survey ships in disputed waters and forced them to withdraw.

At the summit meeting, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev said his country had reached a general agreement with Russia and Azerbaijan on dividing the Caspian seabed along a median line, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

Nazarbaev also suggested that there might be room to negotiate Turkmenistan's proposals for expanded national offshore zones.

But the Nazarbaev statement added little, since Azerbaijan has been in rough agreement with Russia and Kazakhstan on an approach to Caspian division since January when Putin visited President Heidar Aliyev in Baku. The three countries have yet to draw their bilateral lines.

There was also little chance for progress on the decade-old problem of post-Soviet division, since Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov skipped the summit and Iran was not invited as a country outside the CIS.

Without Iran, the summit could do nothing to deal with the source of the dispute with Azerbaijan, which signed a 1998 contract with Britain's BP oil company to develop an area it calls the Araz-Sharg-Alov oil fields. Iran says the fields overlap its "Alborz oil region," which is in the 20 percent of the Caspian that Tehran claims.

But despite the limitations, Putin delivered a strong statement on the Caspian, offering diplomatic help to defuse the crisis and a warning against military measures, which carried a forceful tone of its own.

On the one hand, Putin said: "The Caspian Sea must be a sea of peace and tranquility. Everything must be done to have all disputes resolved through peaceful means by direct dialogue," the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Putin said Russia was ready "to assist in any way possible" to negotiate disagreements in the spirit of neighborly relations and mutual understanding, in line with principles of international law, according to Interfax and Agence France Presse.

But Putin also added, "It is impermissible to resort to military means."

That statement may raise a host of questions about Russia's role in the Caspian and the part that it intends to play.

Although Putin did not explain his use of the term "impermissible," one interpretation is that the use of force in the Caspian would not be in keeping with international law. The other is that Russia would not allow it. In either case, the formula suggests that only force can be used to stop the use of force.

Putin's statement seems sure to serve as a reminder to Iran that Russia is the strongest naval power in the Caspian, a fact that has been a key concern for Tehran. Iranian experts have said that Moscow's plan for dividing the sea bottom while keeping the waters in common could bring Russian warships too close to Iran's shores.

The setting of the Russian statement at a CIS summit could also be seen as a warning against any threat to collective security.

On 2 August, Azerbaijan's ANS television reported that Iranian aircraft crossed into the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian for the third time since the 23 July incident. After the first overflight, Iran responded that there could be no violation of Azerbaijani air space, since the area is in dispute.

On 1 August, the Iranian official news agency IRNA offered a lengthy analysis of the disagreement, without polemics. Citing a map obtained from a U.S. energy firm, IRNA said the issue was only over a single field known in Azerbaijan as Alov, rather than the entire Araz-Sharg-Alov contract with BP. The area consists of 1,400 square kilometers, the news agency said.

The analysis, with precise locations, appeared to be laying the groundwork for negotiations rather than a broader conflict.

But in uncertain times of border disagreements, Iran may also have to consider concerns about Russia, as well as Azerbaijan.