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Caspian: Tensions Continue Following Summit Failure

  • Michael Lelyveld

Accusations have flown back and forth across the Caspian Sea in the week after a failed summit meeting. While Turkmenistan may seek a new accord with Azerbaijan, Russia's plan for naval exercises this summer has stirred the waters in Iran.

Boston, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Caspian countries have tried to limit the diplomatic damage from last week's unsuccessful summit, despite rising concerns about a show of Russian naval power.

In the past week, officials of the five shoreline nations have stressed the positive aspects of the 23-24 April meeting in Ashgabat, which ended without an agreement on borders or even a joint communique.

The first meeting of presidents from Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran was not expected to solve the decade-long dispute over post-Soviet boundaries. But it was thought likely to produce at least a signed declaration of peace and goodwill.

Perhaps stung by the collapse of the event that he hosted, Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov went on national television on 26 April to announce that he was ready to launch talks with Azerbaijan over oil-field feuds that have split the two countries for the past five years.

Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev had cited the quarrel as a major reason for the summit's failure. Speaking in Baku, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev reacted positively and promised to appoint a delegation, the Turan news agency reported. But Niyazov made the same proposal at the CIS summit in Moscow last December. Aliyev responded similarly, and no action was taken after that.

The Azerbaijani opposition paper "Yeni Musavat" criticized Niyazov, who is known as Turkmenbashi, or head of the Turkmens, in a story headlined, "Why has Turkmenbashi become soft?" It quoted former Foreign Minister Tofiq Zulfuqarov as saying Ashgabat's purpose was to align itself with Moscow and its CIS neighbors on a division plan which has been firmly opposed by Iran.

Zulfuqarov said: "Niyazov has got to back off from his previous position and join the three countries. But in order not to show his intention openly, he is trying to disguise the conflict with Azerbaijan."

While the frictions may survive the peace feelers between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, the main course in the Caspian continues to be the tension between Russia and Iran.

Moscow has authored the formula for dividing only the sea floor into national sectors, leaving the waters open to its dominant navy. Iran has sought common control of the entire Caspian or a 20 percent share, while the Russian plan would give it perhaps 12 percent.

Some Iranian media outlets reacted angrily to President Vladimir Putin's visit to the Russian naval base at Astrakhan on his way back from the summit. Taking what seemed to be a tough line on borders that have yet to be drawn, Putin ordered naval exercises this summer and the modernization of the Russian fleet. Russian officials have yet to explain the timing of the move.

The English-language "Tehran Times" responded with unusually harsh language toward the Russians, quoting unidentified experts as saying that Putin's comments were "the result of his political immaturity."

In a stroke of indirection, the paper warned that Putin had opened the door to a Caspian conflict with the United States rather than Iran, because Washington would act to address the naval imbalance. It said, "The United States has declared its intention to extend a $4.4 billion military aid to the Azerbaijan Republic." The basis for the enormously inflated claim is unclear, but there has been no such announcement from Washington.

Other Iranian papers were more to the point in their criticisms of Russia. The official English-language "Iran Daily" said Putin "adopted a threatening tone in Astrakhan" and decried what it called his "threat against the littoral states." The daily cited Putin's statement that Russia would proceed in the Caspian by pursuing bilateral agreements in the absence of an overall accord.

The Farsi paper "Aftab-e Yazd" carried a story under the headline, "Russia is not trustworthy."

Russian and Iranian officials have tried to calm the troubled waters. On 30 April, Russia's ambassador to Tehran, Aleksander Maryasov, referred to the Iranian reports, saying their concerns about a threat to stability were "unfounded." Maryasov cited terrorism, drug smuggling, and sea rescue as the reasons for the naval exercise, the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti said.

Maryasov also argued that agreements between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan "should not be interpreted as a challenge to the other Caspian littoral states."

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, returned to the tranquil theme that the Caspian should be a "sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation." He also echoed the "Tehran Times" warning in milder terms, saying a foreign presence in the region would "only complicate the situation," the official news agency IRNA reported.

But Iranian parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi was more direct about the conflict with Moscow, saying, "Iran and Russia have good and close ties, but the Islamic Republic of Iran is obliged to defend its territorial integrity and national interests of the country." Karroubi added: "We are neither an aggressor nor tolerate aggression. We hope all countries, including Iran, will achieve their fair share in the Caspian Sea."

The reactions may reflect the risk of coming together in the long-delayed summit, which was stalled by fruitless diplomacy for over a year. But the outcome may have placed an even greater burden on diplomatic efforts to keep Caspian conflicts under control.

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