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An important issue in the Caspian region: Internationalization of Volga-Don Waterway

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea

The Russians believe that the Volga-Don channel [1] is completely an internal waterway, while the new condition of the Caspian Sea requires some kind of reconsideration in this regard and possibly making the Volga-Don channel an international waterway or a waterway under a special regime.

Volga-Don Canal

The Caspian Sea littoral states have failed to reach a general compromise on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea. [2] Since the collapse of the USSR, these states have convened many conferences in all levels to solve this problem and they have not succeeded. This issue has the potential to turn into a point of confrontation and even conflict, especially with discovery of oil and gas resources and the new importance of the Caspian oil as an alternative to the Persian Gulf oil (at least to some extent). However, there are certain problems in the Caspian basin that do not need to wait for the complete settlement of the legal regime of the Caspian Sea. Apart from pressing issues such as the Caspian environment, one of the important issues in the region is opening the possibility of using the only outlet that the Caspian Sea has to the open waters of the world.

Volga-Don Canal is a canal and a 101 Km long waterway which constitutes the most direct navigable connection between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov, and thus the open waters of the world. The first recorded canal work for creation of such connection was done by the Ottoman Empire in 1569. After capturing Azov in 1696, the Russian rulers decided to build the canal, but because of a lack of resources, this attempt was abandoned in 1701 without success. The actual construction of the present Volga-Don Canal took place between 1948 and 1952. [3]

The Volga-Don waterway has the potential to contribute substantially to the development of the region dominated by landlocked counties in the shores of the Caspian Sea. It can also be important in helping Iran to have more capacity for using its resources in the Caspian region.

Under international law, a river that flows through more than one country should be regarded as an international river. Volga does not flow in the soil of any other immediate littoral states of the Caspian Sea other than Russia. However, there are some legal arguments in the line of internationalization of this waterway or at least setting a special regime that can be preferential in the case of the Caspian littoral states:

  1. The river Akhtuba flows to the Caspian Sea through the territory of Kazakhstan and at the same time, Volga and Akhtuba are so interrelated that they are considered a single waterway system or hydrographical basin. The fact that part of the above-mentioned system belongs to Kazakhstan, can give rise to a claim to the entire new rights in the system. [4]
  2. It is fair also, to say that Russia may be legally bound to provide to the landlocked states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan the right of passage though the Volga-Don waterway. It is clear that this requires an agreement among the concerned parties.
  3. The waterway was built at the time that the newly independent states of the Central Asia were part of the Russia, so it gives them a right to be inheriting some rights and privileges after the collapse of the USSR. This has precedence in some other cases. Especially the allocation of certain parts of the USSR's navy to the other countries due to the collapse of the USSR.

In the past, insistence of the Russians to deny or extremely restrict the use of Volga-Don waterway for the other littoral states of the Caspian sea, including Iran, has created unnecessary problems for these countries. There has been requests and arguments made to the Russians by various parties about opening up this waterway. Turkey as a regional country has been active in this regard and being a country that borders the Bosphore and Dardanelles straits, which are subject to special regulations for the passage of the military and merchant ships of the other countries, Turkey has asked the Russians to accept a preferential treatment for the regional countries in the Volga-Don waterway. Also it seems that during all of the ongoing negotiations regarding the Caspian Sea and regional issues, the issue of opening up the Volga-Don waterway for at least the littoral states of the Caspian Sea should be included.

Stamp illustration of a lock on the Volga-Don Canal (1953)


  2. For more on this refer to: Bahman Aghai Diba, Iran and the International Law of Sea and Rivers, 2011.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.orgl
  4. Uibopuu, Henn-Juri. "The Caspian Sea: A Tangle of Legal Problems," World Today, vol. 51 (June 1995).


Bahman A Diba, PhD International Law of the Seas, is the author of several books. His latest books were published in 2011:


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