Washington, 18 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow last week made a strategic retreat from its long-standing position on the legal status of the Caspian. But despite that, it again failed to secure the unanimous support of the other countries on the shores of that body of water.
As a result, the legal dispute over the status of the Caspian, a dispute that has restricted the exploitation of oil and gas fields there, appears likely to continue and possibly even intensify.
But until it is resolved, the flow of gas and oil to the West from the Caspian basin will almost certainly remain frozen.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has insisted that the Caspian is a lake rather than a sea and that it must thus be exploited jointly rather than by the individual countries along its shores.
Of the four countries bordering the sea, only one -- Iran -- initially supported Moscow's position, largely because the Russian government said that it will respect the 1921 and 1946 treaties that in effect give Iran control of territorial waters.
Arguing that the Caspian is a sea rather than a lake, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan wanted treatment equal to that given Iran, but Russia refused and thus blocked the kind of economic development in these states that would provide a sound economic foundation to their independence.
But both because of its own desire to profit from oil exports from this region and because of increasing pressure from the West and major international oil companies, Moscow has made a series of small compromises from its earlier position, seeking to attract now one and now another of the littoral states to its side.
At a meeting in Turkmenistan last week, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov made the largest concession yet. He in effect suggested that the five littoral states split the difference between those who believe that the Caspian is a sea and those who insist it is a lake.
Primakov reportedly called for a division of the Caspian into two zones, a 45-mile zone out from the coast that would be exploited by each respective littoral state and a central portion of the Caspian that would be exploited jointly.
Despite its apparent neutrality, this proposal was clearly designed to attract the support of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, most of whose oil and gas resources would be within the 45-mile littoral area to put even more pressure on Azerbaijan, much of whose hydrocarbon resources lie beyond such a zone.
With regard to the first two, Primakov appears to have won some but not all of what he wanted. On the one hand, the Russian foreign minister was able to announce that these two countries, along with Iran, had agreed to form a joint company to explore and exploit oil and gas in their coastal zones.
But on the other, Kazakhstan's deputy foreign minister Vyacheslav Dizzatov said on Friday that Almaty had not accepted Primakov's proposal in its entirety but was prepared to discuss it on the condition that oil and gas reserves under the Caspian were adequately mapped.
Primakov's efforts to put pressure on Baku, however, failed to achieve what he and Moscow hoped for and may even have backfired. While Azerbaijan did agree to continue to talk about the legal status of the Caspian, it maintained its right to treat that body of water as a sea and thus to extend its economic zone beyond the 45-mile one that Primakov proposed.
But perhaps more important, Baku's firm position received some unexpectedly explicit support from the United States, which like many other Western countries, is anxious to see this dispute resolved and the oil flow.
During a visit to Azerbaijan just after the Ashkhabat session, Ambassador James Collins, the senior American official responsible for relations with this region, publicly declared that the United States supported Baku's efforts to secure a precise delimitation of the waters of the Caspian sea.
Washington's ability to influence the outcome of this dispute, of course, is limited by both geography and the provisions of American legislation that restrict aid to Azerbaijan because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia.
But new willingness of the United States to provide at least rhetorical backing to Baku will certainly encourage Azerbaijan to continue to insist on its position in the apparent hope that Moscow, having retreated now, may retreat again.
But until that happens, and it may not happen soon, the legal status of the Caspian seems likely to remain open, and the flow of oil and gas from it very much closed.