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Central Asia: Caspian Ministers Try To Divide The Oil And Gas Spoils

Ashgabat, 11 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign ministers of the Caspian Sea states gather in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat tomorrow for another attempt to define the legal status of that stretch of water.

Driving the rather academic question of whether the Caspian is really just a lake, instead of a sea, is the prize of fabulous wealth in the form of oil and gas reserves.

How the Caspian is defined controls the way the spoils will be divided up between Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The underwater oil reserves alone are estimated to be of the order of 4,500 million tons.

If the water is considered a lake, then under international law all littoral nations must share equally its underwater resources. If it is a sea, then each country possesses and can develop the resources of its own section of the continental shelf.

The Ashgabat meeting is meant to resolve the dispute and clear the way for a convention to be signed by leaders of the five countries. But whether any definitive agreement will emerge is in doubt, with reports saying it's unclear whether Azerbaijan's foreign minister Gasan Gasanov will even attend.

Russia has led the move to catagorize the Caspian as a lake, with analysts pointing out it has most to gain from this strategy. Iran shares the same view, and in the course of the debate, Turkmenistan has come closer to this line of thinking. Kazakhstan is now reported to be wavering, leaving only Azerbaijan in strong opposition.

Moscow is reported preparing to offer a compromise proposal at the meeting opening tomorrow, in which each state would be offered a 40-mile exclusive economic zone. Originally Russia insisted on a 12 mile territorial limit. Kazakhstan is considered likely to view the compromise as interesting, because its resources, as charted, lie within 40 miles of the coast. But Azerbaijan has its eyes on deposits which lie, in part, further offshore, and it is very unlikely to be impressed by Moscow's offer.

There's a lot at stake. Reports emerged last month of a possible major find in the sector claimed by Azerbaijan, which could amount to 2,000 million tons of oil as well as a vast reservoir of natural gas.

The Ashgabat meeting is another round of an oilmen's poker game for exceedingly high winnings.