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Russia: Putin's Baku Visit Still Leaves Caspian Outlook Murky

An agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan on cooperation in the Caspian Sea has raised hopes for a legal division of the waterway and its resources. But questions continue over Moscow's strategies and the opposition of Iran. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld looks at the issues involved.

Boston, 15 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The outlook for an agreement on dividing the Caspian Sea seems as cloudy as ever, following Russian President Vladimir Putin's trip last week to Azerbaijan.

The two-day visit appears to have left news outlets struggling to find a headline after weeks of preparations produced no significant pacts. Although some warmth may have been generated in personal relations, little progress was made on key issues such as Nagorno-Karabakh or the Gabala radar station in time for Putin's appearances with Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev.

Also, no public assurance appears to have been given on improving the sporadic Russian gas service to Azerbaijan, which is more important to the warmth of its citizens.

The one arguable exception to an otherwise symbolic fence-mending mission was a bilateral statement on principles for cooperation in the Caspian Sea, which both countries border. The vague language of the understanding seemed to reflect the will to reach some kind of agreement after Putin postponed the original date for his visit last November.

In one complicated provision, the two countries agreed "to demarcate the bottom of the Caspian between the relevant contiguous and opposite states into sectors or zones by using equidistant points to draw a median line which can be modified by agreement between the sides and also taking into consideration generally accepted principles of international law and current Caspian practice."

Those who have followed the debate over Caspian division for years may detect a series of compromises and changes in the cooperation pact. Azerbaijan has essentially agreed that its insistence on national sectors will be limited to the Caspian seabed, while Russia accepted the legality of Azerbaijan's offshore oil projects, which it first challenged in 1994.

But perhaps more important than the details, which are all subject to further negotiations among the five shoreline states, including Turkmenistan, Iran and Kazakhstan, is Putin's strategy of signing a series of bilateral agreements and their effect on Iran.

While Iran has continued to resist the Russian formulas, Putin has proceeded to line up agreements with Kazakhstan and now Azerbaijan. The Russian president hinted broadly this week that he would soon sign a Caspian pact with "another country," although he did not specify which it was.

If it is not Iran, then by process of elimination, Putin must have been referring to Turkmenistan. In seeming contradiction, earlier this month, Ashgabat's Caspian envoy, Boris Shikhmuradov, met in Iran with President Mohammed Khatami and declared that the two countries share "identical views."

Iran has steadfastly insisted that it is entitled to an equal 20 percent share of the Caspian, while the Russian formula would probably give it only about 13 percent of the sea floor.

So far, Iran has not been swayed by Russian incentives. Khatami recently repeated the 20 percent demand following the Tehran visit of Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and a decision to continue arms sales to Iran.

The timing of Khatami's statement may reflect an Iranian view that Russia's military help is all very nice, but that arms sales are in Russia's own economic interest and are no reason to give up Caspian claims. Putin's statement suggests that he would like to raise suspicions in Iran that Turkmenistan may soon go over to Russia's side, leaving Tehran alone in its opposition to a Caspian deal.

Tehran's anger at the Russian maneuvers became apparent recently, when the official news agency IRNA quoted an "informed source" at the Foreign Ministry as objecting to reported Russian war games in the northern Caspian.

The official said: "Iran believes there is no threat in the Caspian Sea to justify the war games and military presence, and such measures will harm the confidence-building efforts of the littoral states in the region." The statement is a sign that military ties between Russia and Iran do not extend to the Caspian, while Tehran may see the Russian navy behind Moscow's plan to keep the Caspian surface in common.

Since the substance of Russia's latest Caspian agreement is so vague, the style of Putin's diplomacy may be more critical. What can he hope to accomplish with two-party pacts before reaching a multilateral accord on principles? With each bilateral agreement, Putin has reaffirmed that a Caspian settlement can only come from consensus among all littoral nations. Yet, he continues to pursue the bilateral course.

Putin appears to be convinced that Iran can be made to respond to a combination of pressure and incentives on the Caspian issue. So far, it is the only shoreline nation that he has not visited.