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Caspian Sea is not the sea of peace: On the occasion of the 4th Summit of Caspian Leaders

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea

Leaders of the Caspian Sea littoral states keep talking about the peace and security in the Caspian Sea. They even signed a security agreement in the Third Summit of the Caspian States (Baku, Azerbaijan Republic, 18 November 2010). But the reality is that the Caspian Sea is not as peaceful as it looks. The Caspian region has serious potentials for turning into point of confrontation and conflict. The littoral countries of the Caspian Sea have not solved their problems. These are some of the most important problems in the region:

  1. The failure to find a commonly acceptable formula for delimitation of the national boundaries in the Caspian Sea.
  2. The conflict between Iran and almost all other Caspian littoral states regarding criteria for delimitation.
  3. Iran-Russian differences about the Russian initiative called the MML ( division of the seabed according to the median line and leaving the superjacent waters for common navigation of the littoral states)
  4. The political orientations of the littoral states
  5. The conflict about oil and gas pipelines through the Caspian Sea region, as the home for several land-locked countries.
  6. Conflicts on overlapping oil and gas fields.
  7. Dilapidating living resources of the Caspian Sea (including Caspian Sturgeon that is source of Caspian Caviar) due to pollution and unregulated fishing.
  8. The territorial disputes of the littoral states with each other and other neighbors on places other than the Caspian Sea.
  9. The insurgencies in the undemocratic countries that create instability and increase the distrust of peoples to their governments.
  10. Separatist movements (such as Chechens) that their territorial claims may affect the access of the Caspian states to the sea.

The division of the Caspian Sea still remains a thorny problem in the relations of the littoral states. In the last couple of years, the littoral states made efforts and failed in finding a collectively agreed solution. Following the failure in the collective diplomacy, the bilateral efforts gained a new weight. The result was conclusion of several treaties between the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan Republic, and Kazakhstan about delimitation of the seabed in their areas. But Iran and Turkmenistan have declared them as null and void.

Even those states that have concluded bilateral treaties have not solved all issues. The concerned treaties are concentrated on the division of the seabed on the basis of the modified equidistance or median line, leaving many other issues unresolved. The formula, which is devised by the Russian Federation, leaves the waters of the Caspian Sea free for shipping of all littoral states. The littoral states, except than the Russian Federation do not have any important naval units or commercial ships in the Caspian Sea. So it is clear that the formula used in the concerned bilateral treaties is devised according to the interests of the Russian Federation.

Some of the remaining issues in the Caspian Sea as far as the law of the sea is concerned are follows: The territorial water, baselines, internal waters, river mouths, bays, ports, islands and their territories, low-tide elevations, innocent passage of commercial and military units, submarine traffic, passage through Volga-Don waterway, sea lanes or traffic separation schemes, nuclear powered ships, warships of the littoral and non-littoral state, responsibility of the flag state, hot pursuit, safety of life at sea regulations, certification of seaworthiness, indemnity for damages of the shipping and pollution, contagious zone, research and survey activities, economic zones, regulations for laying pipelines, responsibly for accidental and operational oil and nuclear pollution and so on.

If you mix these regional issues to the existence of undemocratic, corrupt, and unstable governments in the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, and the inclination of the great powers to use the Caspian oil as rival or alternative to the OPEC oil, and the expansion of NATO to the East, and revival o some of the cold war issues then you see the picture of “oil, blood and politics”, as Alfred Noble (he made a fortune from Caspian oil) saw it a century ago.

It is interesting that the new summit conference of the Caspian states in Moscow is not going to solve any of the problems mentioned at the beginning of this piece, but it going to look seriously into something else: keeping the non-littoral states out of the Caspian Sea.

The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth by area, variously classed as the world's largest lake or a full-fledged sea. The sea has a surface area of 371,000 km2 and a volume of 78,200 km3. It is in an endorheic basin (it has no outflows) and is bounded to the north by Russia, to the south by Iran, western Azerbaijan, and eastern Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.


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