At their summit in Tehran (see EDM, October 17), the presidents of the five Caspian countries’ agreed tentatively and in general terms to create an institutional framework for regional cooperation on economic, legal, and some security issues.
The presidents, who had not met since 2002 in this format, decided to hold regular five-country summits each year from now on. Azerbaijan will host the next summit in October 2008 in Baku. The riparian countries’ ministers of foreign affairs will meet regularly at six-month intervals from now on. These ministers, along with border guard and law-enforcement officials, are to draft regional arrangements on border security and maritime law enforcement. Those documents are to be submitted in time for the October summit in Baku. Meanwhile, Russia will host a meeting at the level of deputy prime ministers and economy ministers in Astrakhan in summer 2008, as part of preparations for setting up a (tentatively named) Caspian Sea Economic Cooperation Organization.
Russia has long evidenced an interest in creating a Caspian regional organization that it would dominate. At the Tehran summit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed in Iran’s name the formation of a Caspian Sea organization. This would ostensibly “facilitate economic cooperation and trade, maintain security and peace in the sea, prevent military and naval competition, and deal with trans-border crime (IRNA, October 16). Putin endorsed Ahmadinejad’s proposal. However, the five countries have yet to harmonize their respective views on the actual functions of such an institution.
On legal issues, the presidents agreed that all shipping, fishing, and transportation in the Caspian Sea would be carried out exclusively under the flags of riparian countries. This decision formalizes the existing situation without changing it. The summit declaration calls for all legal issues to be resolved peacefully by the riparian states themselves — a formulation apparently designed to forestall official assistance from other parties. However, the presidents avoided discussing the differences among riparian countries over the method of dividing the seabed and waters.
Only Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed a method: Dividing the water area into sovereign territorial sectors at least 12 nautical miles wide for each country, fishing zones 12-30 nautical miles beyond the sovereign zones, and an open zone in the center of the sea, with freedom for shipping and negotiated national quotas for fishing. Nazarbayev called for revising the existing quota system for sturgeon fishing, which is largely a legacy of pre-1991 allocations between the Soviet Union and Iran. Under the existing system, Iran is entitled to 45% and Russia to 27%, with the remaining 28% distributed among Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.
On the vexed issue of the naval balance in the Caspian Sea, Nazarbayev called for demilitarization as the optimal solution: “But I know that not all countries would agree to this,” he noted, alluding to Russia. As the next best option, Nazarbayev called for control of naval and coastal armaments and limiting all naval activities to coastal and border guard missions (IRNA, Interfax, Kazakhstan Today, October 16, 17). Russia’s naval forces (with coastal-based aviation) dwarf the capabilities of all the other Caspian countries combined.
The summit’s concluding declaration stipulates that the Caspian countries would “never use their armed forces for attacking one another” and, moreover, “under no circumstances would they allow their territories to be used for launching attacks or other military operations against other riparian countries.” This proviso seems designed with the possibility of U.S. strikes on Iran in mind.
During the summit in Tehran, Presidents Nazarbayev, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov of Turkmenistan, and Ahmadinejad signed an agreement to build a north-south railway connection between their countries. The connection would enable Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to gain commercial access via Iran to the Persian Gulf — a longstanding goal of the Central Asian countries. Turkmenistan looks to become the hub of this north-south line. Putin had endorsed the project when meeting with the Turkmen and Kazakh presidents in Turkmenistan in May of this year and confirmed Russia’s assent during the Tehran summit. Russia expects that the line, once constructed, would connect with the Russian railway system (IRNA, Altyn Asyr TV, Interfax, October 16).
On October 17 Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Iran’s First Vice-President Parviz Davudi attended the opening of the Shahtakhti-Poldasht bridge over the Araz River, connecting Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan exclave with Iran. The two countries jointly financed and completed the construction of the 164-meter bridge in two years. At the ceremony, Aliyev also noted the joint construction of the gas pipeline link, which he and Ahmadinejad jointly inaugurated two years ago. The pipeline crosses the Araz riverbed from Iran, and it is vital to the Nakhichevan exclave (Trend, APA, West Azerbaijan TV, October 17).