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Caspian: Conflicts Likely At Presidents Summit

  • Michael Lelyveld

A series of reports on Caspian conflicts may make the task of negotiation tougher for five presidents who will attend a summit in Ashgabat next week. Concerns about possible border concessions have prompted increases in demands, warnings of military buildups, and challenges to diplomacy. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the days before a Caspian Sea summit in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, next week, nationalists have been raising tensions and lowering hopes that progress can be achieved. Reports in the five littoral states have stressed the reasons for conflict rather than accommodation on the problem of how to divide the Caspian and its oil. The presidents of the five countries are due to meet on 23 April to discuss the decade-old legal issue at the summit level for the first time.

But as the event nears, deputies of the Iranian Majlis have become increasingly vocal about their country's Caspian policy and the risk that it could be compromised.

Iran has insisted on common control of the Caspian or a minimum area of 20 percent, although its share of the shore is considerably less. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's trips to Moscow and Baku this month have prompted domestic concerns that a settlement for a smaller area is in the works.

On 10 April, members of the Majlis criticized Kharrazi's shuttle missions, according to the English-language "Tehran Times." Jafar Golbaz of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission said the foreign minister's talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin "had not been in line with Iran's interests," the paper reported.

In the ensuing debate, Kazem Jalali, a Majlis member from Shahrud, argued that Iran should have claimed 50 percent of the Caspian, since it had signed territorial treaties with the Soviet Union in 1921 and 1940 as an equal partner. Jalali called on the government to explain why it was only pressing for 20 percent from the Soviet successor states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.

Word of the comment quickly echoed through the region in altered forms. The next day, Kazakhstan television broadcast a report saying that the entire Iranian committee "has put forward a demand that the Caspian littoral states give Iran 50 percent of the Caspian resources."

The BBC-monitored report said, "Iran has officially demanded part of the oilfields which are considered to belong to Kazakhstan." It concluded that, "Disputes over the status of the Caspian Sea have gone beyond all bounds."

The report failed to mention that Iran and Kazakhstan are at opposite ends of the Caspian and do not share a border. The broadcast also cited the speech by a parliament member as an "official demand," although there was no such statement from the Iranian government, which denied any change in policy.

On Tuesday, Kazakhstan commercial television repeated the charge, saying that Tehran "is now pressing a claim at [the] government level already to parts of Kazakh oil deposits."

The station said, "Official Tehran believes that the other Caspian littoral states are lawful successors to the Soviet Union, and so they should divide another half of the sea among themselves. In that case, Iran will get some of the oil deposits that are currently owned by Kazakhstan."

The inflammatory reports glossed over Jalali's argument, as reported in the "Tehran Times," that Iran "should have insisted on its 50 percent share in the beginning to at least secure a 20 percent share of the resources." He said that other countries are trying to reduce Iran's share to 11.8 percent, the amount covered by its coast.

This week, the daily "Iran News" also slammed Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev for making what it called "soft remarks" in his talks with Kharrazi, calling them "diplomatic niceties." The paper criticized Baku's lack of cooperation on the Caspian. Last July, an Iranian gunboat chased two Azerbaijani survey ships from a disputed oilfield in the most dangerous incident since the Soviet breakup.

Reports in other countries have also played on pre-summit ire. The Azerbaijani paper "Ekho" this week cited a report in the daily "Iran" newspaper, which raised alarms over yet another report by the Radio BBC Persian Service that Tehran might be ready to accept a 14.5 percent share.

The Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" added its input with a report on 11 April, warning of a military buildup because of Caspian border disputes. The paper said that, "Kazakhstan and Russia are building their military groups in the Caspian."

Although Russian officials have said they are likely to reach a final bilateral border accord with Astana in May, the paper argued that no progress has been achieved on contested oilfields for nearly five years.

The report said Russia has reinforced its Caspian fleet with new ships, aircraft, helicopters, and an airfield in Kaspyisk. Although Kazakhstan has no navy, it warned that it will build one "in the next several years." The paper estimated that Kazakhstan now has 3,000 military personnel in the Caspian with 10 coast-guard boats and three helicopters.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" also repeated a report from last June that Turkmenistan has acquired 20 high-speed patrol boats from Ukraine because of Ashgabat's border row with Baku, although Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has since said the real number is two.

The reports in each country suggest that there will be stubborn resistance to any concessions at the summit, making an agreement a tough task for the presidents next week.