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Caspian: Summit Failure Generates Further Concerns For Future Division Of Sea

Experts say that countries of the Caspian region are more likely to pursue separate border agreements following the failure of a summit meeting with Iran in Ashgabat this week. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also ordered naval exercises and modernization in the Caspian, posing further concerns about accommodation with Iran.

Boston, 26 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The first Caspian Sea summit came to an end but not a conclusion on 24 April, as leaders of the five shoreline nations offered various versions of the disappointing results.

Analysts had not expected that the two-day presidential meeting in Ashgabat would yield an agreement on how to divide the Caspian and its resources. The solution has eluded Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan since the Soviet breakup.

But the summit was extraordinary for its inability to issue a joint declaration or a document of any kind, after months of diplomatic groundwork. Few high-level gatherings in the region have failed to produce at least a final communique.

The absence may be a measure of the gaps that separate the positions of the five neighbors on the division issue. The failure may have turned the summit into a significant setback rather than a step toward an accord.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami showed no flexibility in his country's demand for either common control or a 20 percent share of the Caspian. The stand is firmly opposed by Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan.

President Vladimir Putin was equally adamant on Russia's plan for splitting only the seabed into sectors along a median line. The formula, which Moscow has pursued since 1998, would give Iran about 13 percent of the bottom while allowing Russia's navy to roam the waters at will.

Putin said at the summit's opening ceremony: "There are five of us here today, the heads of the five littoral states. However, the Caspian Sea itself was and remains a single one. I think it is a mistake, therefore, to divide the Caspian Sea into five parts."

Julia Nanay, director of Caspian services at Petroleum Finance Company, a Washington-based consulting firm, told RFE/RL that the impasse raises the chance that the Caspian area nations will pursue their own course and set boundaries for development of their offshore oil.

"I didn't expect them to reach an agreement with Iran, but I still think that the other countries plus Russia will agree to a solution among themselves, and perhaps Iran will be left out of that solution. However, it will have to be an unofficial solution, since the only way a final status agreement can be achieved that is official is to have Iran sign on."

In fact, the first signs after the meeting were that the three aligned countries would follow precisely that course. Russia's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhnyi told the Interfax news agency that Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan were expected to sign a trilateral division treaty next month. The countries have already signed bilateral pacts, despite protests from Iran.

Russia's commitment to its strong military position was symbolized by Putin's postsummit visit to Astrakhan, which is a base for its Caspian fleet. Despite its dominance, Putin told commanders that "the fleet needs renewing" as he ordered naval exercises this summer, RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

Putin called the forces "an essential factor in guaranteeing the economic and political interests of Russia." He told the officers, "You should develop your presence here." At a later press conference, he also voiced hope that progress could be made on division through bilateral agreements, if not through a five-nation deal.

Both the military moves and the trilateral treaty seem sure to rankle Iran, despite Khatami's statement on 24 April during a visit to Almaty that the summit had produced "major achievements." Analysts found it difficult to name even a minor one. Some questioned the rationale for holding the summit at all, given the low hope for progress.

Fiona Hill, a fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said, "If there was no expectation, why have the meeting?"

Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, the summit host, said the presidents had verbally agreed "not to use force" in the Caspian. Such a promise could have been significant, if it had been clearly endorsed. But Iran has sworn to defend its claims, following an incident last July when an Iranian gunboat threatened two Azerbaijani research ships in disputed waters.

A weakly worded declaration was expected to at least affirm that the Caspian should be an area of "peace and friendship." But at the last minute, the presidents failed to put even this pledge on paper.

According to a report by RIA-Novosti, Niyazov blamed the problem on a behind-the-scenes switch. On 24 April, he complained that "everything the heads of the five countries agreed on the day before" had vanished from the final draft document, leaving it "unspecific, uncontrollable, and meaningless."

Afterwards, Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev said the reason for the reversal was "in particular, on disputed territories between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, and Iran's insistent position." Niyazov has been feuding with Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev over an oil field in the center of the Caspian for the past five years.

When asked about the disagreement after returning to Baku, Aliyev was quoted by Turan news agency as having said: "There is the internationally recognized principle of the median line, but Niyazov set this aside and defined the median line on his own terms. That is why things are like this."

The inability to achieve progress on any of the disputes raises the question of whether the Caspian will remain simply another diplomatic agenda item between the shoreline countries that allows other relations to proceed. The alternative is that it may erupt and disrupt the entire range of regional ties.

Fiona Hill at the Brookings Institution said that either way, the outlook is not hopeful. Stalemate may continue if the division question is seen as a marginal issue, while movement may only come with a crisis, like the confrontation between Iran and Azerbaijan last July.