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Russia: Caspian Sea Conference Fails

Differences over the Caspian Sea were on display at a Moscow conference on 26-27 February. Despite claims of a growing agreement on how to divide oil resources among the five shoreline nations, Turkmenistan refused even to attend, while Iran hardened its opposition to Russia's formula.

Boston, 1 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The results of the Caspian Sea conference in Moscow suggest that the countries of the region have made little or no progress toward resolving their differences.

Despite upbeat comments by some officials, the two-day meeting on the problems of the Caspian's legal status seemed to highlight more discord than agreement among the five littoral states.

Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister, Khalaf Khalafov, said, "Today, the Caspian countries' positions on the status coincide like never before," the Interfax news agency reported.

The statement tried to raise hopes that Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran will soon end a decade-old dispute over how to split up the Caspian and set up post-Soviet borders.

Khalafov was speaking of a general concurrence with Russia and Kazakhstan on Moscow's proposal that the sea floor should be divided into sectors while the water and its surface should be shared.

But beyond that, there seemed to be little harmony, even on the question of how to proceed. "The Moscow Times" quoted the U.S. envoy for the Caspian, Ambassador Steven Mann, as voicing disappointment with the process, saying: "Successful development of the Caspian basin is not something we can consider inevitable."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny predicted that a summit of presidents from the five Caspian countries would be held in the fall, a year and a half after it was first scheduled to take place. But even Kalyuzhny, who is Moscow's Caspian point man, no longer sees the meeting in Turkmenistan as a defining event.

He was quoted as saying that after the summit, "it will take at most a year to finally solve the problem of the status of the Caspian and take care of all formalities."

Kalyuzhny now sees a summit as the only way to get diplomacy moving again. Previously, it was to be a ceremonial occasion for signing accords prepared by a working group of delegates. But this week, Kalyuzhny said that "a working group on the Caspian that includes deputy foreign ministers from the five Caspian states has reached the limit of its possibilities. Therefore, a summit is necessary to sum up the results of our work and to discuss disagreements and differences of opinion that remain."

Kalyuzhny said, "It is possible to do this only at the level of heads of state, as they will define what the status of the Caspian will be." In a curious remark typical of Kalyuzhny's tenure in the Caspian post, he then suggested that the summit's final declaration was already virtually complete, saying, "There are no major disagreements between the sides over the text of this document."

The comment may be a sign that expectations have been set extremely low for the meeting, perhaps concluding with a protocol affirming that the Caspian is a "sea of peace and friendship," as has been stated many times.

Such an approach is unlikely to satisfy the needs of either individual countries or international oil investors for secure and recognized borders. Instead, the conference in Moscow seemed to send a message that prospects for a settlement are slipping backwards instead of moving ahead.

Despite Khalafov's assertion that agreement is growing, the meeting became a demonstration of entrenched dissent. Officials from Turkmenistan refused even to attend. AP said the cancellation left the country's "unaccompanied flag looming awkwardly over the podium."

Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov may have used the occasion to show his anger at Russia for refusing to extradite a group of former officials, who have now formed an opposition movement that issues statements from Moscow.

And despite Kalyuzhny's claim that "Iran is looking for a compromise," the Iranian delegation used the meeting to repeat and harden its position that it is entitled to far more than the 13 percent of the Caspian covered by its coastline. An official said, "Iran considers it as its right to have [a] 20 percent share in the sea's wealth," the Iranian official news agency IRNA reported.

Kalyuzhny also told Ekho Moscow radio that Iran had agreed in principle to the approach of dividing the sea floor, but there was no confirmation from Iran.

The meeting and Russia's dogged but tired approach seem to indicate that nothing has come of President Vladimir Putin's initiative that brought both Niyazov and Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev to Moscow in late January. The two countries have been feuding over a disputed oil field in the center of the Caspian since 1997.

At a CIS summit in December, the two leaders agreed to restart talks but apparently said so only to please their Moscow hosts. Ties between Azerbaijan and Iran have also remained touchy since July, when an Iranian gunboat confronted two Azerbaijani survey ships in contested waters. In February, Aliyev canceled a long-awaited visit to Tehran due to poor health.

Russia's ability to manage the settlement process was also thrown into doubt in February with the sudden and unexplained cancellation of a Moscow visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. Relations turned frosty following the second crash of a Russian-made Iranian airliner in the past year and unconfirmed reports of changes in nuclear cooperation between the two countries.

For now, the Caspian process seems to have fallen victim to whatever conflicts may arise. While there seems to be no end to optimistic statements, there is also no end to the Caspian standoff in sight.