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Russia: Caspian Meeting Ends With Few Clues On Progress

A meeting on the Caspian Sea status has ended with vague reports of progress and predictions of a final division agreement soon. The only obvious breakthrough is that Iran no longer feels it necessary to call off the talks.

Boston, 25 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Caspian envoys concluded a meeting in Moscow on 24 January with positive statements but few clues to their progress on the decade-old problem of how to draw their maritime borders.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny offered an upbeat assessment, predicting that the working group of diplomats would soon finish crafting an accord to be signed by the leaders of the five shoreline nations.

Kalyuzhny said: "The Caspian states have made serious progress in drafting the final document of the upcoming Caspian summit," the Interfax news agency reported. He added, "I think our next meeting in Ashgabat will be the last one before the leaders of the five Caspian states meet for summit talks."

A communique issued at the end of the two-day session was studiously vague. The ITAR-TASS news agency cited the statement as saying, "Adopting the international status of the Caspian sea, taking into consideration the interests of all the Caspian states, will enable to create favorable conditions for developing the Caspian resources."

Oil companies see the border issue as a legal cloud hanging over Caspian development that could keep disputed fields off-limits indefinitely.

Kalyuzhny said all parties now want the summit held "as soon as possible," but no target date has been set. The presidential meeting, which was first scheduled to be held in Ashgabat last March, has been repeatedly put off. Kalyuzhny said the next working group session is now expected in late April in Ashgabat.

While details of the Moscow meeting were scant, the envoys could claim some progress for holding it at all. The gathering, which was originally planned for 18 December, was postponed at Turkmenistan's request on behalf of Iran.

The four CIS neighbors and Iran have been stuck on the post-Soviet division issue for years. A Russian solution, calling for splitting the seabed along a "modified median line," has won support from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Turkmenistan has wavered back and forth, while Iran has pressed for a larger share than is covered by its coastline.

Iran has worried that Moscow's formula for keeping the waters in common could also favor the powerful Russian navy. Treaties signed in 1921 and 1940 did not distinguish between the navigation of commercial vessels and warships.

Iran's fear of being cornered in negotiations has made it hard even to hold talks. The Moscow multilateral session was only the sixth such meeting to date. The previous one in Astana last September made no headway. In October, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan joined Iran in rejecting a Russian bid to negotiate fishing rights separately.

In November, Kalyuzhny also proposed new compromises on "resource-sharing" that were not based on borders, but it is unclear whether the ideas have placated Iran.

The biggest movement in recent months seems to be the result of efforts to restore calm following an incident last July, when an Iranian gunboat expelled two Azerbaijani survey ships from a disputed oilfield. Turkey responded by throwing its weight behind Baku, putting the region on edge.

In recent weeks, Iranian officials have visited Baku repeatedly to patch up the rift, although Iran's official press coverage has avoided even mentioning it. The missions are said to be aimed at preparing a package of agreements for Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's long-delayed trip to Tehran next month.

Iran's fury again raged briefly in early December after Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan signed a pact on dividing their sections of the Caspian. Tehran blasted bilateral deals without an overall settlement. But it kept silent as Russia signed a similar accord with Kazakhstan, apparently preferring not to antagonize Moscow.

According to Azerbaijani reports, Baku has offered a share of its disputed oilfield to Russia's LUKoil, a move that could complicate matters for Iran.

If the entire process is aimed at overcoming Iran's objections, it may be having some success. Although it could keep frustrating a settlement, Tehran has important interests with all the Caspian countries that go beyond the division issue. The working group meetings suggest that Iran no longer feels it necessary to block the talks.

But Tehran's reactions will be worth watching after reports this week that Russia has launched powerful new warships in the Caspian.

According to ITAR-TASS, a "Sokzhoy" series vessel began patrolling Russia's Caspian border on 23 January. The ship, which carries a "six-barrel super-rapid-firing cannon," is said to be capable of speeds up to 50 knots. It will be used to protect "biological resources," the news agency said. More than 10 ships are being added to Russia's fleet.

If Iran remains at ease with the new force, it may be a sign that agreement has been reached on navigation and the use of Caspian waters. If not, the diplomacy will drag on.