The Caspian Sea summit has opened in the Russian city of Astrakhan with the sea's five littoral states seeking an agreement on who owns which parts of the Caspian and therefore access to valuable oil and gas reserves.
All of the five countries' presidents are attending the summit -- Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev, Russia's Vladimir Putin, Iran's Hassan Rohani, and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev.
At the opening of a meeting between the five presidents, Putin called the Caspian region "an oasis of peace and true good neighborliness."
Officials from the five countries have been working for years to reach an agreement on the sea's legal status so that billions of dollars in natural resources can be exploited.
The current treaties on the Caspian's legal status date back to 1921 and 1940 when Iran and the Soviet Union negotiated the terms.
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- countries which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union -- do not feel bound to those agreements.
At stake in the negotiations are vast oil and natural gas reserves worth billions of dollars.
The key issue is the legal status of the Caspian, whether it is considered to be a lake or a sea.
Caspian Sea Countries: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan
If the five were to agree the Caspian was a lake, it would mean under international law they would have to use the "condominium" approach and equally divide the Caspian's resources -- and the profits from those resources.
If the Caspian is defined as a sea, each country would have its own national sector extending from its shore.
Under such a definition, Kazakhstan in particular benefits as it has the longest coastline with the Caspian and is believed to have more than half the Caspian Sea's oil and gas in its sector.
If the Caspian is accepted as a sea, Iran would have access to only some 13 percent. It is widely believed the Iranian section of the Caspian contains the least amount of oil and gas, though relatively little exploration has been carried out there.
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan have moved ahead quickly in finding foreign investors to help them develop what they regard as their national sectors of the Caspian.
The three countries are unlikely to agree to share the resources from their sectors.
Another main issue is reaching an agreement to prohibit any country other than the five littoral states from having any military presence or influence in the Caspian Sea.
Leaders of the five countries have been saying for years they wanted to avoid any militarization of the Caspian, while at the same time all five countries have developed their own naval forces for the Caspian.
Russia, easily the strongest naval power in the Caspian Sea, has been pushing an agreement that excludes outside militaries from gaining any foothold there. Iran has also enthusiastically supported this position.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet separately on the sidelines with each of the leaders attending the summit.
He and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev are also due to meet at a Russian-Kazakh regional forum on September 30 in Atyrau, Kazakhstan.
The September 29 meeting in Astrakhan will be the fourth Caspian summit in some 12 years. Previous summits were held in Turkmenistan in 2002, Iran in 2007, and Azerbaijan in 2010.
With reporting by ITAR-TASS, Interfax, Trend.az, Caspian Barrel, and tengrinews
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