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Caspian: As Summit Nears, Rifts Over Sea's Division Continue

Caspian nations have little time to resolve their differences on the sea's legal status before a scheduled summit meeting on 14 April. Russia may be trying to promote a new plan that would alter the shares of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 29 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the new date for a Caspian summit draws closer, the positions of the five shoreline states seem to be drawing further apart.

The meeting, which was postponed from early March to mid-April, may be put off again unless rifts over dividing the sea can be resolved soon.

In the past two weeks, Russia has been trying to mend fences with its neighbors since it signed a joint declaration on the Caspian with Iran. The statement issued on 12 March by presidents Vladimir Putin and Mohammed Khatami sparked immediate outcries from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

Russia's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhny flew hastily to Astana to make amends for the document, which said that Moscow and Tehran "do not officially recognize any borders in this sea" until a settlement on the legal regime is reached.

The joint declaration implied that current offshore oil contracts could be considered illegal. It stated that: "All decisions and accords concerning the legal status and the regime for the use of the Caspian Sea shall have force only if they are accepted by the common agreement of the five Caspian littoral states."

Kalyuzhny confessed to a cold reception in Kazakhstan, which signed a Caspian border deal with Russia in 1998 and has large offshore contracts. After smoothing things over, Kalyuzhny was due to pay a similar call on Baku, which also reached a Caspian accord with Moscow in January.

But the visit set for 20 March was delayed for undisclosed reasons until Tuesday of this week (27 March). At the meeting with President Heidar Aliev, Kalyuzhny had promised to explain all the "nuances" of the Russian-Iranian pact, Azerbaijan's ANS News said.

That task may have been tough, considering the statement's clear wording. The only option may have been to explain that the statement does not really mean what it says. But that interpretation could be even less satisfying, since Russia is trying to convince its neighbors that it will honor its words.

The joint declaration with Iran is hardly the end of Russia's troubles with Tehran, either, because the statement during Khatami's visit to Moscow was only a last-minute substitute for a meaningful agreement.

Russia continues to press its case for dividing only the Caspian seabed into national sectors, while keeping the water and its surface in common use. Iran has insisted on a 20 percent share of both the seabed and the waters, which is more than its proportion of the shore. Tehran opposes the common-use formula because of concern about Russian warships.

Until recently, Turkmenistan appeared to be siding with Iran against Russia. But in his latest statement, President Saparmurat Niyazov outlined a position between the two. Niyazov, who would host the Caspian summit in the port of Turkmenbashi, now says that he supports a division of the entire waterway into national sectors, leaving a 20-mile zone in the middle for the passage of ships.

Such a plan could keep Russian warships far from Turkmenistan's coast, but it is unclear how close the north-south corridor would come to Iran.

In an interview with "Iran Focus," a British-based monthly, an Iranian expert on the Caspian said that Russia has also proposed a new compromise formula to Iran.

Abbas Maleki, a former government official who now heads the International Institute for Caspian Studies in Tehran, said that Russia has proposed a solution that would divide the Caspian in half. The northern part would be split between Russia and Kazakhstan, which have already agreed on their shares. The southern half would be shared by Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran, giving each roughly 17 percent.

Maleki said that Azerbaijan has shown no interest in the idea, because Russia's earlier formula would give it 21 percent. Turkmenistan might be persuaded, since its sector has been calculated at about 18 percent. Iran stands to gain, since a line from its coastal boundaries now gives it only 13 percent.

So far, it is unclear whether Iran would agree to the compromise, especially if worries about Russian warships continue. The plan could explain why Kalyuzhny delayed his trip to Baku, giving him time to pursue the formula with the other shoreline states.

But with the summit now scheduled for 15 April, much selling still needs to be done. And the "Iran Daily," a government-run newspaper, recently urged that the meeting be called off until the Caspian disputes are resolved.