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Caspian: Ashgabat Summit Ends Without Agreement

Ashgabat, 24 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan have failed to reach an agreement on dividing the resources of the Caspian Sea, ending two days of talks in Ashgabat on the issue.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov told reporters today in the Turkmen capital that no concrete result had been achieved at the summit. He said: "We, the five [Caspian] states, met willingly and freely exchanged our views. Yet, we have not made any decision. [We] still have a lot of work to perform on the Caspian issue."

He said each country has committed itself not to use force to resolve the issue.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev both described the summit as "fruitful" and "successful," but neither provided any details to support their assessment. Aliyev stressed it was the first time since 1991 that the presidents of all five states had met for an "overall discussion" on the Caspian.

The question of dividing the Caspian -- believed to contain the world's third-largest crude oil reserves -- has been contentious since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the emergence of four new countries on its shores: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan.

Talks among the five Caspian states have dragged on for years without a settlement, preventing the development of the sea's natural resources. The major stumbling block has been how to fairly apportion the rights to the seabed where the oil is located.

Iran, which has the smallest shoreline, is seeking joint control of the sea or a minimum of a 20 percent share of the seabed for itself.

Russia has argued for national sectors, but only on the seabed, leaving the waters for common use. That position, which is supported by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, would give Iran around 13 percent of the seabed.

Turkmenistan has not made a firm commitment on either side.

On 16 April, Iran's IRNA state-run news agency quoted Mehdi Safari, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's envoy to the Caspian, as saying he expected the Ashgabat summit to help the sides narrow their differences. But Safari had said he expected no agreement would be signed.

He also made it clear that Iran would oppose any bilateral agreement other countries might reach on the delineation of the Caspian borders. This was widely viewed as aimed at Russia, which has already signed separate accords with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

Earlier this month (4-6 April), Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Moscow and Baku to mend the rift over Caspian Sea borders. However, the Iranian envoy's talks with Russian and Azerbaijani officials produced no concrete results.

Addressing reporters at a separate press briefing held before the closure of the summit, Niyazov blamed his Caspian counterparts for the lack of progress on the Caspian issue.

Niyazov said he is proposing that each of the five states' borders would extend for about 15 nautical miles into the sea. Each state would also have an approximately 25-nautical-mile zone meant for fishing and other activities to be carried out with the mutual consent of all Caspian states.

Niyazov said Putin had rejected the economic zone idea. Niyazov defended his plan by saying the unclear border has led to a lot of illegal fishing.

"Today, we have to agree about the [Caspian] littoral zone. There is a lot of illegal fishing going on along our coastline, including some private companies from your countries, from 300 to 350 small and big fishing boats. Nobody knows where the border lies."

Regarding the 15-nautical-mile zone, the Turkmen head of state said, "Yesterday we reached agreement, but today a number of [countries] are refusing this idea and now say [that experts] should work on this and determine the distance between the shore and the borders."

Niyazov blamed Aliyev for failing to compromise over disputed Caspian oil fields that both Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan claim. He accused Azerbaijan of illegally carrying out exploration work on these oil fields.

The possibility of holding similar such summits in the future is unclear.

Niyazov rejected an idea by Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to hold annual summits. Niyazov said instead a council should be created that would include the heads of all five states and would meet regularly.

"I have proposed to establish a council of the presidents of Caspian countries that would convene once a year and would be chaired by one of the presidents on the principle of rotation. This is very important. One can smell blood behind the Caspian Sea, and every one of us must understand that it is not an easy problem to solve."

Although Niyazov's proposal was not sustained, all participants agreed to meet again at a later date that remains to be determined.