Are the Littoral States Close to Signing an Agreement on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 61

Moscow’s chief negotiator on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, Igor Bratchikov, stated, on April 14, at the international “Caspian Dialogue” forum in Moscow, that “the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea is almost ready, and the absolute majority of provisions have been agreed upon” (, April 14). The statement was quickly picked up by the press. Indeed, the positions of the five Caspian littoral states—Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan—seem closer than ever before, and hopes are high that the Convention can be signed later this year. In fact, last July, in Astana, the five countries’ foreign ministers declared a commitment to finalize the draft Convention by the next Caspian Presidential Summit, which will be held in Astana sometime in 2017 (TASS, July 13, 2016). Support for signing the Convention during the upcoming Astana summit has been expressed by all of the littoral countries, at various levels—most recently by Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, during his visit to Kazakhstan on April 18–19 (, April 19).

The dispute over the legal status of the Caspian Sea has long hindered opportunities for regional cooperation, particularly with regard to the establishment of Trans-Caspian energy corridors, from Central Asia to Europe. It has also left many oil and natural gas fields underdeveloped in the southern part of the sea, as well as encouraged the rapid militarization of the Caspian in recent years (see EDM, July 25, 2016). At the core of the problem lie the divergent and sometimes contradictory positions on measures to be applied to divide the surface and seabed of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan argues that the Caspian “Sea” is actually an international border lake and should be divided into national sectors based on the median line (equidistance) principle. In fact, back in 1970, the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Oil and Gas had divided the Caspian seabed into Kazakh, Azerbaijani, Russian and Turkmen sectors based on equidistance; and Azerbaijan suggests that this division, according to the legal principle of uti possidetis juris, can be accepted as a departure point for delimitation negotiations (, accessed, May 8). Baku also argues that the littoral states should be able to freely develop energy extraction and transportation projects in their respective sectors even before the all-inclusive Convention on legal status is signed. Such a perspective has notably been rejected by Russia and Iran, which want to block the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline project by declaring its construction illegal prior to the signing of the Convention (, October 20, 2016).

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s official position is to apply certain provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to the Caspian, notably regarding the width of the proposed national sectors (, March 25, 2016). Whereas, Russia’s position can best be described as “common waters, divided bottom” (, December 4, 2015). Due to the closeness of the positions of Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan—most importantly, for accepting the median line principle—these three states were able to agree on the delimitation of the northern part of the Caspian seabed. In 1998, Russia and Kazakhstan signed a bilateral agreement in this regard, and Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan inked a similar agreement in 2001. The final trilateral arrangement was concluded in 2003, which divided the Caspian seabed according to the modified median line (MML) and left the surface open to navigation by all littoral states.

The division of the Caspian seabed on the basis of an MML means that having a longer coastline entitles a littoral state to a larger area of the sea. This position was rejected by both Iran and Turkmenistan. As the country with the shortest coastline, Iran strongly opposes the median line principle, claiming the Caspian is a lake and demanding that it be equally divided among the littoral states (which would increase its current share of the sea from 14 to 20 percent) (Payvand, March 13, 2015). Ashgabat is particularly opposed to any reference to the 1970 division, which leaves the Kapaz oil field, owned by Azerbaijan but claimed by Turkmenistan, under Baku’s jurisdiction. Iran has also tried to dispute the ownership of some oil fields belonging to Azerbaijan, which led to some near-clashes in the past (EurasiaNet, July 20, 2016).

However, over the course of the last few years, there has been a gradual change in the Iranian and Turkmenistani positions, mostly linked to the desire to develop their own oil and gas projects in the Caspian Sea. Specifically, Tehran has signaled it is giving up its maximalist position, and Ashgabat has accepted the MML principle. In December 2014, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan signed an agreement on the delimitation of the bottom of the Caspian Sea, which entered into force in July 2015 (, March 25, 2016).

As positions became closer, the meetings of the littoral states and the bilateral consultations among them intensified in preparation for drafting the Convention. In 2016 alone, five meetings of the Special Working Group tasked with preparing the draft were held, one in each of the five capitals. At the end of the year, delegations of Kazakhstan and Russia, with which Azerbaijan already had an agreement in place, visited Baku to hold consultations. The latest meeting of the Working Group was in Baku on January 25–26, 2017, which brought about the solution to the key point of contention—the acceptance of the MML principle by all sides and agreement on the methodology for the definition of the main lines, opening up a way forward on the signing of the Convention (, January 27).

The next meeting of the Working Group will take place in Ashgabat, which will also bring together the five countries’ foreign ministers. It will be the final five-party gathering before the Astana presidential summit. The exact dates of the events in Ashgabat and Astana have not been clarified yet, but both are firmly planned for sometime this year. Though a positive diplomatic tone at these various Caspian littoral states gatherings is nothing new, the recent intensity of the meetings and consultations looks to be a serious indicator that the long-standing dispute over the legal status of the Caspian sea may finally be settled this year.