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Caspian: Solution To Inland Sea Division Remains Elusive

A summit meeting of Caspian nations has been put off for one month as the countries struggle to find a formula for dividing the waterway. The effort now appears aimed at finding a minimum of agreement so that the latest deadline will not pass without some kind of accord. Correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 28 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Caspian Sea nations are hoping that a delay in their summit meeting until April will give them enough time to find common ground on the question of sharing resources. But the search for a meaningful agreement still seems a difficult task.

Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov broke the news on 26 February that the scheduled gathering of presidents from the five Caspian nations would not be held on 8 and 9 March as promised. Instead, it was put off until the first 10 days of April at the request of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, according to Niyazov.

The delay is linked to differences that remain after a working group meeting of deputy foreign ministers last week in Tehran. The officials planned to draft a pact on a post-Soviet split of the Caspian to be signed at the summit, but accounts have been vague about how much progress was made.

Confusion also reigns on how the talks will proceed. Some reports say that another working group meeting will be held in Baku, but no date has been publicly set. Khatami is said to have wanted a summit postponement until after his visit to Moscow on 19 March, when a Caspian accord with Russia is supposed to be reached. It is unclear why the five-party summit was ever put first, since the Iranian and Russian stands have been the hardest to resolve.

The Iranian press seems to be largely steering clear of the issue, as if it is unsure of who the enemy is. But there are hints that Tehran is becoming increasingly outnumbered by its Caspian neighbors as Moscow pursues a divide-and-conquer strategy to win what it wants.

Russia has been pushing a proposal to split the sea bottom into national sectors while keeping the water and its surface in common. But Iran has held out for a 20 percent share of both the seabed and the waters. That division would enlarge Iran's portion and have the added advantage of keeping the Russian navy bottled up in its own sector far to the north.

So far, Russia has persuaded Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to follow its lead, while Turkmenistan publicly sided with Iran before the Tehran talks. Although officials have yet to disclose the full results of their negotiations, it may be possible to trace the outlines of a limited agreement by piecing together reports.

Russia's Caspian envoy, Viktor Kalyuzhnyi, said before the Tehran meeting that Moscow was seeking a "phased advancement" of the division issue. As a result, it had reached an understanding with Azerbaijan on a division of the sea floor.

In other words, all the countries now seem to agree that at least the seabed must be divided. The exact location of bilateral borders and the control of the surface may remain matters for debate.

But little progress can be made without negotiations between countries that have neighboring sectors. A Caspian agreement could at least recognize the legitimacy of bilateral border-setting on the seabed in cases where no third country's interests are involved.

Until now, Iran has challenged bilateral agreements. Last week, it won a pledge from the Caspian nations that decades-old Soviet treaties with Iran would remain the basis for any settlement for the time being.

Moscow has also called for a division based on a "modified center line" approach that would allow disputed oil fields on a bilateral border to be shared. It is not clear how such an agreement would affect Iran's interests, since its Caspian border is the only one that does not share a north-south line. The question for Iran is how far south such a line should extend.

It may also be possible to address some of Iran's concerns about naval power by declaring the intention of all parties to follow only peaceful pursuits. Reports have also suggested efforts to ban all vessels of foreign flags.

Compromise language seems likely on environment issues, since none of the Caspian countries can claim a faultless record in that regard. The related issue of fishing rights could continue to be difficult, in part because of implications for the common-waters principle.

Despite the problems, there could still be enough agreement for a declaration or a partial accord. But if Khatami's meeting in Moscow passes without the outlines of progress for a summit in April, this week's postponement could be the first of many delays.