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Caspian: Moscow Attempts To Set Sea Borders

  • Michael Lelyveld

A new diplomatic push appears to be in the works to settle the decade-old issue of Caspian Sea borders. Russia has invited the presidents of both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to Moscow this month, raising concerns in Iran about the outcome.

Boston, 10 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Trips to Moscow this month by the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan suggest that a new drive is underway to reach an agreement on dividing the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev is expected in Moscow in late January, according to ITAR-TASS. The visit of Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov, is scheduled for 21 January, the Russian news agency said.

Although it is unlikely that the trips will coincide, the close timing may be a sign that Russia will try to mediate between the Caspian neighbors, whose feud has blocked progress on the division issue for years.

In 1997, Turkmenistan convinced former Russian President Boris Yeltsin to tear up a contract with Azerbaijan to develop what it calls the Kyapaz oil field in the center of the Caspian. Ashgabat claimed the deposit, which it calls Serdar. The two countries have been at odds ever since.

There are other issues that have blocked a post-Soviet settlement of Caspian borders, but the Kyapaz-Serdar problem has been one of the biggest obstacles to a deal among the five shoreline states.

Turkmenistan's ties to Iran have also stopped it from backing Russia's plan for splitting the Caspian bottom along a "modified median line" while keeping the waters in common. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have agreed. Iran objects, seeking a larger share of the resources and a buffer from the Russian navy, which could be free to roam under the formula.

Ashgabat's wavering stance has saved Iran from isolation. As the scheduled host of a Caspian summit, Turkmenistan has also been helpful in stalling a showdown with repeated postponements for nearly a year.

Most recently in December, a working group meeting of deputy foreign ministers to draft an agreement in Moscow was called off at Iran's request with support from Niyazov. But the latest statements indicate that the fickle Turkmen leader may again be leaning Russia's way.

Last week, the Interfax news agency quoted unnamed Moscow sources as saying that the Russian and Turkmen positions "have become remarkably closer." The statement came days before Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov visited Ashgabat this week.

Ivanov was said to be laying the groundwork for Niyazov's trip to Moscow. The meeting was also to discuss the Caspian issue, Ivanov told the RIA-Novosti news agency. Aliyev and Niyazov last met in late November at the CIS summit in Moscow, where they agreed to restart talks on the oil field dispute.

Speaking on 9 January at a meeting with Ivanov, Niyazov predicted that the Caspian summit will be held this year, ITAR-TASS reported.

Niyazov said, "However, it will only be an exchange of views, and we shall not be able to settle the problem of the status of the Caspian Sea." Niyazov added, "At present, practically all concerned countries are unanimous in their approach to the division of the seabed." But he cautioned that there were still differences on the use of the water's surface.

The prospect of a settlement has kept Iran busy. Tehran's Caspian envoy, Mehdi Safari, arrived in Baku on 8 January for his second visit to Azerbaijan since last month. The two countries have been trying to mend fences following a confrontation last July, when an Iranian gunboat expelled two Azerbaijani ships from another disputed oil field.

But Iran's diplomatic activity has accelerated since the CIS summit. At least two readings seem possible. Tehran is either seeking to stall a settlement among its neighbors, or it is trying speed up its own negotiations so that it is not left alone as the only dissenter to a Caspian deal.

Iran and Azerbaijan have been working on a package of bilateral agreements for months in preparation for President Aliev's frequently postponed visit to Tehran. The latest date for the event is in the second half of February. Russia may want to wind up its mediation between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan before then.

Russia has a series of incentives to dangle before Turkmenistan. Russian companies agreed last month to cooperate in developing Turkmenistan's oil and gas fields. An intergovernmental agreement on long-term energy cooperation is expected to be signed.

Russian gas trader Itera recently renewed its contract to buy up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas and to transport larger volumes to Ukraine this year. But Russian purchases from Turkmenistan are still a fraction of the 30-year deal for 50 billion cubic meters annually that President Vladimir Putin discussed in May 2000 during a visit to Ashgabat.

In the meantime, Russia has signed a similar cooperation deal with Kazakhstan, which could soon fill the capacity of the former Soviet pipelines from Central Asia, as Kazakhstan develops its gas industry over the next few years.

Turkmenistan needs Moscow's assurance that it will not be squeezed out of the transit by a source that is closer to the Russian network.

The benefits of cooperation make it likely that Russia can be persuasive if it tries to mediate a Caspian settlement with Turkmenistan. So far, Iran seems to be offering Ashgabat little that can compare with Russia's incentives for a Caspian deal.