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Central Asia Report: April 25, 2002


25 April 2002, Volume 2, Number 16

LOW EXPECTATIONS FOR CASPIAN SUMMIT IN ASHGABAT� The presidents of the five Caspian littoral states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- met on 23-24 April in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat to discuss the vexed problem of dividing the sea's surface waters and mineral riches, Reuters and AP reported. It was the first time all five presidents had met. The summit was scheduled twice last year, for April and October, and postponed both times when it became clear that the sides were too far apart to make a meeting worthwhile (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 10 August 2001). This month, with littoral states still cleaving to mutually contradictory positions, some observers were predicting another last-minute cancellation, or at least a downgrade in participation from presidents to special envoys (see "Baku Expects Iran To Try to Block Agreement At Summit," rferl.org, 22 April 2002). When the summit convened as planned, the question became what the presidents thought they could accomplish while their expert working groups remained at loggerheads.

The summit's host, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, raised expectations before it started by characterizing it as "an historic event" and hinting that he would be tabling some kind of "surprise" solution, AP said on 22 April. It was Niyazov who originally conceived the notion of a presidents' summit in 2000, saying that since the diplomats and experts were deadlocked the heads-of-state needed to meet personally to hammer out "a drastically new approach to the Caspian problem," Interfax noted on 19 April. Turkmen TV titillated its audience on 20 April with reports that Niyazov had personally developed a package of new proposals � on dividing the sea surface, navigation regulations, and fishing rights � proposals whose details the TV unfortunately was unable to reveal, it said. But there was no sign that Niyazov had any breakthrough ideas, surprise or otherwise, about delimiting the seabed with its hydrocarbon resources, whose legal status is the core issue dividing the parties. In fact, Turkmen government sources told Interfax on 19 April that the Caspian's status was "highly unlikely to be determined in the course of one meeting." They indicated that Niyazov had other goals for the summit, which were more political than legal. They said he wanted leaders to establish "fundamental principles" of cooperation to serve as the basis for future negotiations instead of trying to settle their disputes in the Caspian by means of "a compass and ruler."

Meanwhile Moscow worked to reduce expectations, predicting that no binding treaty would be signed, according to eurasianet.org on 22 April. Russia, together with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, has come out in favor of dividing the seabed into shares proportional to the length of their respective coastlines, by drawing national sectors along median lines. RFE/RL reported the same day that Azerbaijan was also anticipating little from the summit, since it expected Iran to stick to its position that the sea should be divided up equally into 20 percent shares. Azerbaijani press contributed to the picture of Tehran's intransigence by reporting that an Iranian warship had violated Azerbaijan's territorial waters on 16 April, reminiscent of a July 2001 incident when an Iranian gunboat drove an Azerbaijani exploration ship licensed to BP out of disputed waters. The Iranian Embassy in Azerbaijan rejected the report as untrue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 April 2002). As for Tehran's stance, its message in the run-up to the summit was that it was not prepared to compromise, according to IRNA. The news agency reported on 15 April that Iran's envoy for Caspian Sea affairs, Mehdi Safari, repeated that the Caspian must be developed jointly by all five littoral states, and rejected any unilateral or bilateral agreements as invalid and unacceptable. Finally, a spokesman for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told AFP on 21 April that the Kazakhs did not imagine that the summit would break the present impasse, for which Iran was held chiefly to blame. However, AFP added that Iran's Caspian neighbors were expected to propose commercial incentives, such as stakes in oil exploration deals, to encourage Tehran to be more flexible.

Ironically, in light of Iran's opposition to bilateral dealings, the most concrete agreements to emerge from the summit in Ashgabat were struck on the sidelines on a bilateral basis, although it was not clear that they related directly to dividing Caspian resources. On the morning of 22 April, before the summit began, Niyazov privately met Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to sign agreements on trade, economic cooperation, and collaboration in the fields of science and technology, RIA-Novosti reported. Bilateral trade amounted to $430 million in 2001, and could rise to $1 billion per year, Niyazov said. On the same day, the Turkmen president signed a friendship and cooperation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The treaty added to a similar bilateral document signed in 1992 and calling for cooperation in political, economic, cultural, and humanitarian spheres, RIA Novosti reported.

...FULLY MERITED, AS MEETING ENDS IN FAILURE. Opening statements by the five presidents at the start of the summit on 23 April reiterated well-known positions of their respective countries about the Caspian's legal status and optimal division, and offered little prospect of bridging their differences, AP reported. Khatami stressed again Iran's insistence on equality and consensus and its objections to any unilateral or bilateral decisions concerning the sea, and demanded that exploration and drilling stop in sectors whose status has not been properly defined. In response, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev said that development should go on in the national sectors that have already been established, even if the overall status of the sea remains an open question, RIA Novosti reported. Niyazov supported Khatami in calling for operations in disputed territories to halt, the news agency added. Ashgabat and Baku disagree over the ownership of three of the sea's major oil deposits, which are called the Osman, Altyn Asyr/Serdar, and Hazar blocs in Turkmenistan (and Chirag, Sharg/Kyapaz, and Azeri, respectively, in Azerbaijan -- see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 3, 10 August 2002). Niyazov further suggested setting up a council of the five Caspian presidents that would meet annually to resolve existing problems in a spirit of cooperation "without resorting to ultimatums," Turkmen TV reported.

The Russians sounded more positive than anyone that the Caspian littoral states could find common ground. Putin, who announced that the summit would issue a joint communique, called on the leaders to cooperate broadly to resolve regional problems and combat international terrorism, AFP reported. "It would be a mistake to divide [the Caspian] into five seas -- it is our common wealth," Putin said. He also said he believed the gathering could produce what he called "unexpected" results, RFE/RL reported on 24 April. Meanwhile Viktor Kalyuzhnii, the Russian deputy foreign minister in charge of Caspian issues, declared himself "optimistic" even if no breakthrough was imminent, AP said on 23 April.

Regional cooperation and a joint front against terrorism were the themes of a closed-door meeting between Khatami and Putin on the morning of 24 April, ITAR-TASS reported. The agency added that the Russian president praised Iran for its contribution against terrorism -- while Washington accuses Tehran of actively sponsoring terrorism (see "Putin, Khatami Meet On Sidelines Of Summit," rferl.org, 24 April 2002). Russian-Iranian relations vis-a-vis Caspian issues have been improving since the presidents signed a joint statement in March 2001 that said the legal resolution of the sea's resources "is the littoral states' business" and therefore required no interventions by an outside power (such as the United States).

Yet the five presidents emerged from four-hour talks on 24 April no closer to an agreement than before: "The problem was larger than we expected," Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said, as cited by AP. The promised joint resolution also failed to materialize. Niyazov explained that there was no sense in signing an "empty document" -- that is what the communique would have been, he said, because there were so many outstanding issues where the parties had been unable to agree, Reuters reported. Furthermore, the Turkmen president criticized his counterparts for their inability to reach a compromise, the news agency said. Both he and Khatami, representing the countries that are weakest in the Caspian tug-of-war, worried that the sea was becoming militarized, and consequently issues that had not been resolved by talks might be decided by force. Niyazov twice warned that "the Caspian smells blood," according to AP. Putin, who commented merely that the talks had been "open and constructive," said the leaders would keep talking, and proposed holding a new Caspian summit in Tehran in spring 2003.

While the Ashgabat summit failed to find an overall solution to the division of Caspian resources, despite two days of discussions and two years of preparation, bilateral arrangements continue apace. Russia and Azerbaijan, which reached a bilateral agreement on delineating their part of the Caspian shelf on 10 April, plan to sign a protocol when Aliyev visits St. Petersburg on 9 June, RFE/RL reported. Russia and Kazakhstan aim to sign a bilateral treaty delimiting their national sectors by mid-May, Dow Jones newswires reported on 9 April. The latest estimate for the total oil reserves in the Caspian region is 7.8 billion barrels, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 8 April.

TRILATERAL SUMMIT SET TO DISCUSS TRANS-AFGHAN PIPELINE. Speaking on the telephone on 19 April, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Hamid Karzai, the head of Afghanistan's interim government, agreed to meet early next month in Ashgabat to discuss a project for a trans-Afghan gas pipeline, RIA-Novosti reported. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf confirmed three days later that he, too, would be attending the summit, Turkmen TV said on 22 April. The proposed gas project revives a plan drawn up in the 1990s by a consortium led by the U.S. company Unocal, but abandoned in 1998 while civil war still raged between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. That plan had been for a $1.9 billion, 1,460-kilometer pipeline, about half of which would traverse Afghan territory. The revived project will cost about $2 billion, and envisages a pipeline (running from the Douletabad field in Turkmenistan to Multan in Pakistan, via the Afghan city of Kandahar) with an initial annual capacity of 15 billion cubic meters of gas, RIA-Novosti said. Interfax added on 19 April that this project will cost an extra $500 million if the pipeline is extended to India. It is worth noting that Unocal has said it has no interest in the project any more, and no Western major has expressed a desire to invest in such a pipeline in the post-Taliban environment (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 14 February 2002).

However, Niyazov invited Russia and the UN to support the pipeline on 22 April at a UN-sponsored roundtable, held in Ashgabat, devoted to human security in the post-transition period in Central Asia, ITAR-TASS reported. The pipeline, which would run in parallel to a highway and a power line, would bring 15,000 jobs to Afghanistan, money to Kabul's coffers, and contribute to stability in the region as a whole, Niyazov said. At the roundtable, which was also attended by UN special envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi and the co-chairman of the UN Commission on Human Security, Sadako Ogato, the Turkmen president contrasted his own country's proactive role in security-building in Afghanistan with the UN's slowness in tackling economic issues there, reviving Afghan production capacity, and creating new jobs, Turkmen TV reported. The UN's "attention to Afghanistan is flagging to some extent," Niyazov told Brahimi, "and consequently this is giving rise to internal ethnic confrontations." He warned that the north and south of the country might be torn along ethnic lines unless something were done quickly to improve the social and economic situation in the country, the TV reported. As an example of what Ashgabat was doing in this regard, Niyazov told Karzai that Turkmen engineers have already extended power lines into northern Afghanistan and they will soon be electrifying Mazar-i-Sharif, Shibirgan, and other Afghan cities, Turkmen TV and Interfax reported on 19 April.

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