The Caspian Sea had been an exclusive economic zone of Russia and Iran for nearly 300 years until the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan emerged as sovereign states triggering a territorial dispute among the five over the Caspian division which still defies solution despite many rounds of talks. Now excluding Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the three other littoral states met in Baku on Aug 8 to form a new trilateral format of cooperation. However, talks on Caspian Sea are unlikely to progress if some littoral nations are excluded and Iran keeps insisting on equal division of the sea while it actually controls only 13% of it.

MOSCOW (AT)-Three out of five littoral Caspian states suddenly moved to form what they described a “new format” of regional cooperation. However, it remained unclear how the apparent exclusion of two other littoral nations could possibly facilitate the Caspian settlement, acceptable to all littoral states.

Caspian states meet in Baku
Leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia met at the first trilateral summit in Azerbaijani capital of Baku on August 8

Leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia met at the first trilateral summit in Azerbaijani capital of Baku on August 8 to discuss new energy and transport projects in the Caspian Sea. They signed a joint declaration, pledging to develop trilateral cooperation. The declaration also calls for prompt signing of the Caspian Convention that would determine the sea’s legal status.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev described the meeting as a “historic event, creation of a new format” of the trilateral cooperation, focusing on economic ties. He also said that the Caspian Sea should remain an area of peace, a common asset of the littoral states.

Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced hope that the trilateral dialogue would help to finalize the Caspian Convention in the best interests of all five littoral states. He also said that Russia was ready to discuss Caspian pipelines with Iran and Azerbaijan.

Putin, his Iranian and Azerbaijani counterparts Hassan Rouhani and Aliyev also discussed a North-South transportation corridor to connect the Central Eurasia and the Persian Gulf along the west coast of the Caspian Sea from Russia to Iran through Azerbaijan.

The North-South corridor is apparently supposed to compete with the existing routes, including the sea route going through the Suez Canal.

In the meantime, the “new trilateral format” apparently excluded two littoral states, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan with a background of the continued attempts to reach an agreement on the Caspian division.

Just few weeks ago, at a meeting in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, representatives of the five countries that border the sea made yet another attempt to work out a mutually acceptable solution. Foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states met in Astana on July 13. The meeting was held in a bid to reach a consensus on a draft of the Caspian Convention, a legally-binding treaty to determine the future Caspian division, acceptable to all littoral states.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said it was “absolutely realistic” to aim for signing the Convention in the first half of 2017. However, the differences between the littoral states did not take long to surface.

After the Astana meeting, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia-Pacific Affairs Ebrahim Rahimpour said the Caspian should be equally divided. Iran disagrees with getting only 13 percent of the Caspian Sea, he said.

The Caspian Convention has been under discussion since 1991. According to treaties in 1921, 1940 and 1970, Iran controls just 13 percent of the Caspian Sea and is poised to benefit greatly from equal division. After 1991, Iran suggested that the Caspian should be divided equally, with the five littoral states each receiving 20 percent of the sea.

The first Caspian summit, held in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, in April 2002 did not adopt any agreements. The next Caspian summit was subject to endless delays. It was originally expected in Tehran in 2004, but it was held only in 2007.

At the Caspian summit in Tehran, the littoral states agreed to form a new grouping, the Caspian Economic Cooperation Organization (CECO). The new entity was expected to hold its first meeting in Russia in 2008, but the grouping has failed to materialize so far.

The subsequent Caspian Summits did not achieve any breakthroughs. The next Caspian Summit is due to be held in Astana in 2017.

In the meantime, Moscow is also sending neighboring littoral states a reminder of its military might in the Caspian. Later in August, the Russian Caspian Flotilla is due to hold the war games. The drill is due from August 15-20 in the southwestern part in the Caspian Sea.

Therefore, the unexpected trilateral summit as well as the latest talks between the Caspian envoys once again demonstrated difficulties in reaching a broad regional consensus. It remains to be seen whether the “new trilateral format” could help the littoral states to agree on the complex issues of the Caspian division.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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