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Caspian: Russia Proposes Wider Offshore Zone For Dividing The Sea

  • Michael Lelyveld

Russia has proposed a wider offshore zone for national sovereignty in the Caspian Sea in an effort to break a decade-old impasse on sharing oil resources among the shoreline states. The plan may make little headway, but it suggests that Russia is returning to diplomacy after this month's naval maneuvers only served to raise Iran's security concerns.

Boston, 28 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia renewed its diplomatic effort Monday to end a Caspian Sea deadlock, less than two weeks after its military maneuvers ended in controversy.

In remarks reported by Interfax, Caspian envoy Andrei Urnov proposed a new variation on Russia's four-year-old formula for dividing the sea floor into national sectors. Urnov said the current 16-kilometer coastal limit for waters under national jurisdiction could be expanded to 24 kilometers, in keeping with demands for bigger exclusive zones.

Urnov explained his idea, saying that other Caspian countries have sought additional areas for fishing. "Russia suggests merging the two zones into a 24-kilometer zone to enjoy the national jurisdiction and the exclusive right to mineral development," Urnov said.

According to Interfax, the proposal would include sovereignty over issues such as border and customs control.

Russia's latest proposal hardly seems likely to bring the decade-old dispute over dividing the Caspian to an end. Iran opposes Russia's formula for splitting the seafloor, which would leave it with far less than the equal 20 percent share it wants of the entire waterway. The issue has delayed development of several contested oil fields, which may represent some of the world's largest untapped resources.

But if Russia's new plan holds little hope, it may show that Moscow is again trying to put a more diplomatic face on a campaign that has taken on a military image in the past four months.

Apparently frustrated at the failure of a Caspian summit meeting in April, President Vladimir Putin ordered the largest naval exercises in Caspian history for two weeks ending 14 August. Russian officials insisted that the maneuvers were designed to confront problems like terrorism and poaching rather than its Caspian neighbors Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran.

But from the start, the demonstration was difficult to separate from the impasse over the post-Soviet legal division of the Caspian. The most obvious reason was timing, since Putin ordered the war games within hours after leaving the summit of Caspian leaders in Ashgabat.

Although participation was first said to be open to all shoreline states, those taking part with their own forces included only the countries that agreed with Russia on its division formula, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. The official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti let it be known that Iran's ships were barred under an interpretation of a Soviet treaty, leaving it only with a lonely observer. Turkmenistan opted out completely, having nearly no navy of its own.

Russia's display may have been designed to spur the stalled diplomacy with Iran, but it also raised one of its primary concerns. Under the old Soviet treaties, Russian ships are entitled to sail into any port in the Caspian, regardless of whether they carry cargo or guns. Iranian analysts have cited the issue as a problem with Russia's formula for keeping the waters in common, while dividing only the Caspian floor.

Moscow's overwhelming show of firepower may only make matters worse. In that light, Urnov's proposal is unlikely to have much to do with either fishing or minerals. Instead, it may offer Iran more of a buffer area along its coast, or in other words, a "comfort zone."

The argument about "the exclusive right to mineral development" seems particularly thin, since the seafloor plan is already supposed to give each country a legal basis for developing oil resources in much larger national zones.

Urnov's remarks may also suggest an attempt to satisfy Turkmenistan, which has been a stubborn holdout keeping Iran from isolation in opposing the Russian formula. Although Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has called for several different approaches, one has included a 24-kilometer border with a 40-kilometer "economic zone" for fishing and other activities, along with a 32-kilometer navigation channel in the middle of the Caspian.

But in the long, twisted history of Caspian proposals, nearly all positions have changed several times. Turkmenistan once called for a 72-kilometer offshore limit, while Russia advocated a 32-kilometer boundary. Despite Urnov's statement, it is unclear that any 16-kilometer zone has been legally established.

The numbers, like Urnov's proposal, may mean less than the motives behind them. Those seem to be in as much doubt as before.

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