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Caspian: More Questions Arise About Canceled Summit

After another delay in the Caspian summit, Russia has warned that tensions between the five littoral countries are starting to mount. But frictions seem to be the cause for the postponement rather than the result. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 19 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- More than a week after the cancellation of a Caspian Sea summit, questions continue over the motives of the five shoreline states.

The meeting to approve plans for Caspian borders was to be held in Turkmenistan on 14 and 15 April. But after a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart Saparmurat Niyazov on 7 April, the summit was put off until an indefinite date in the fall.

Last week, Russia's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhny warned that frictions are growing because of the lack of an agreement on dividing resources.

Kalyuzhny told a news conference that "the Caspian Sea's undecided status is creating a certain amount of tension in relations between our five countries." He added, "Cracks have already appeared, and the more we delay, the deeper these will become."

If Kalyuzhny is correct, it raises the question of why the summit was delayed for so long. Kalyuzhny said Russia would press for a new date in September, five months from now. When the summit was postponed previously in March at Iran's request, the schedule was pushed back by only one month.

The decision is also hard to understand in light of Kalyuzhny's statement that a joint declaration on the Caspian is "90 percent ready." The document is not believed to be a final agreement but only a statement of principles that the leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran could sign.

Officially, the postponement was caused by "changes in the schedule of certain heads of state," the Interfax news agency said. Kalyuzhny later told ITAR-TASS that the leader was Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliev, who visited the United States for talks on Nagorno-Karabakh and then delayed his return for a health checkup in the midwestern U.S. city of Cleveland.

But the explanation seemed to be little more than an excuse for the lengthy delay. Aliev's travel plans for the peace talks were known weeks in advance. The aging leader also announced his Cleveland trip before leaving Baku on 2 April, five days before the summit was called off.

In any case, Aliev's visit to Cleveland was so short that he arrived back in Baku on 14 April after another stop in London. The return could have given him time to join the summit in Turkmenistan, if it had taken place as planned.

Some Western analysts have voiced doubts about Russia's version of events. Robert Ebel, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, suspects that Moscow has raised the entire division issue to block the building of pipelines across the Caspian for exports to the West. He says that the longer the issue drags on, the longer Russia can keep Caspian oil flowing through its territory.

Ebel said: "One might easily conclude that the Russians don't want a summit. If they were serious, they would be realistic about a schedule."

But there are also reasons to question the motives of other participants. Iran continues to have strong differences with Russia about Tehran's claim to an equal 20 percent share of the Caspian.

Iran is also concerned that Moscow's formula for sharing the waters would allow Russian warships to sail near its shores. Moscow clearly finds it easier to blame Aliev's schedule than to explain why it cannot solve its security problem with Tehran.

Turkmenistan's tactics are also suspect. Two weeks before the scheduled summit, Ashgabat announced that it was close to signing $10 billion in deals, including a contract to develop the offshore oil field known as Serdar. Azerbaijan, which calls the field Kyapaz, has claimed the area as its own. The two countries have been feuding over the resources for years.

By announcing its plans for the oil field, Turkmenistan gave new life to its dispute with Baku, essentially dooming the summit before it began. The issue also involves Moscow, because Azerbaijan previously awarded a contract for Kyapaz to the Russian oil companies Rosneft and Lukoil in 1997. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin suspended the deal after Niyazov complained.

The list of differences suggests that tensions are the reason for the summit delays rather than the result. A working group of deputy foreign ministers may meet in Azerbaijan in May. But with all the problems, it may take at least five months to get the leaders of the five countries back together again.