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Russia: Is Putin Making Progress On Caspian?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been mounting a new diplomatic effort this month to reach an agreement on dividing the Caspian Sea. The latest reaction from Iranian President Mohammed Khatami may be a sign that Putin is making progress. Correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 20 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is pursuing a broad and increasingly successful campaign to resolve the issue of dividing Caspian Sea resources, paying careful attention to relations with Iran.

In the past week, high Russian and Iranian officials have exchanged unusual simultaneous visits. While Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov traveled to Tehran, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan-Namdar Zanganeh was received by officials in Moscow.

The meetings in Tehran produced a series of positive statements about the entire agenda of political and economic issues in the Russian-Iranian relationship. Among the topics were the war in Afghanistan, construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, and Iranian production of a Russian-designed passenger plane, said the official Iranian news agency IRNA.

In Moscow, Zanganeh covered much of the same ground in his role as co-chairman of the Iran-Russia Joint Economic Commission. Both sets of meetings appear to be leading to an even higher-level exchange involving a visit to Moscow by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami next year.

Typically, missions like those of last week accomplish little, other than to reaffirm a relationship by stressing common positions and glossing over rifts. Khatami was diplomatic in an apparent reference to at least one such difference over the war in Chechnya, saying that problems in Central Asia and the Caucasus can be settled by "avoiding use of force."

But this series of visits also seems to have smoothed over another major dispute on a formula for legally dividing the Caspian. At an appearance with Ivanov, Khatami called the Iranian and Russian positions on the Caspian "close." If that turns out to be the case, it could mark a sudden change and a diplomatic breakthrough for Putin.

As recently as three weeks ago, Russian and Iranian officials were aiming statements at each other that showed how far apart they were. Late last month, Putin's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhny said that Iran's demand for an equal 20 percent share of the Caspian was "practically impossible" and would "never happen." An Iranian Foreign Ministry official fired back that, in that case, Russia could divide a 50 percent Soviet share of the Caspian with the three other shoreline states of the CIS.

But since Kalyuzhny's failed efforts over the summer, Putin seems to have followed a more careful step-by-step approach to promoting the Russian formula, which calls for dividing the seabed but not the water or its surface into national sectors. In addition, Russia would settle bilateral claims to disputed oilfields through joint control.

This month, Putin won the strong endorsement of Kazakhstan for the Russian formula after including in a series of agreements that included the creation the Eurasian Economic Community.

Last week, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev told reporters in Moscow that Baku's position on the Caspian question is now "in harmony" with Russia. The statement came shortly after an announcement that Putin would travel to Azerbaijan in the first visit by a Russian president since the Soviet breakup.

As with Kazakhstan, Putin appears to have wrapped his Caspian proposals to Iran in a package of agreements. In Moscow, Zanganeh concluded a memorandum on cooperation with Russia for projects in power generation and industry. According to Russian officials quoted by Interfax, the agreement includes construction and Russian financing of a new thermal power plant in Iran, as well as development of Caspian oil and gas. The deal suggests that Russia may be trying to compensate Iran for concessions on its Caspian stand.

If an agreement with Iran is "close," as Khatami said, it could leave Turkmenistan as the last holdout. A week ago, Putin called Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov to discuss the division issue and arrange a summit of Caspian nations. But no agreement was reported. Turkmenistan has been highly critical of Kalyuzhny's efforts and has sided with Iran.

But if Iran has been persuaded to compromise on the Russian position, Turkmenistan may find that its own stand will become untenable. But as the biggest buyer of Turkmen gas, Russia also has other possible agreements in which it could wrap a Caspian settlement with Niyazov. If this is indeed Putin's strategy, he appears to have stepped up the pace of Russia's Caspian initiative this month.