Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 35

Russia’s Deputy Minister for Natural Resources, Ivan Glumov, has unexpectedly lifted the veil over the profound differences between Russia and Kazakhstan regarding the division of the Caspian seabed. Glumov heads the Russian delegation to the negotiations with Kazakhstan on defining and drawing a median line of division. In advance of a new negotiating round, Glumov went public in order to stake a Russian territorial claim on two small islands in the central part of the Caspian Sea and to assert the existence of a third, previously unknown island. Acceptance of Russia’s claims to possession of those three points would push the median line well to the east, to Kazakhstan’s detriment.

The bilateral negotiations have essentially marked time for the past two years. Kazakhstan had all along proceeded from the assumption that it owned the small islands Ukatny and Zhestky, which Glumov termed “key.” For its part, Moscow–insisting that the two islands form part of the administrative domain of Astrakhan Oblast–has, furthermore, “discovered” a third, previously unknown island, dubbed Malozhemchuzhny, which according to Glumov “exists de facto.” If accepted as such, that “island” would push the median line even further to the east in Russia’s favor.

The context of the published remarks suggests that this “island” might actually be a sandbank, which does not count as an island in international law and can therefore not influence the delimitation of borders or median lines. Kazakhstani negotiators apparently object that the Russians may have helped create that feature in the central part of the sea by bringing sand and silt to the spot. But Moscow was quick to make its next move. “As of now, our border guards and a small scientific research base are present at the site,” Glumov announced.

The differences stem in part from the imprecision of the May 1998 declaration and September 2000 agreement, which Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin each signed with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Both documents envisage division of the Caspian seabed according to a “modified median line,” without clearly defining the criteria for the establishing of a median line, much less of a “modified” one. Putin’s plenipotentiary envoy for Caspian issues, Viktor Kalyuzhny, has in recent months advanced a series of confused, shifting and often-contradictory proposals on possible definitions of the median line and the modified one.

The disclosure of serious differences between Russia and Kazakhstan throws a fresh light on the recent exercises of Russia’s Caspian Flotilla in “central parts” of the Caspian Sea. Thought initially to have timed strictly to Putin’s visit to Azerbaijan, that show of force–which featured the use of live ammunition–may have been intended for Kazakhstan as well (Itar-Tass, February 14; see the Monitor, October 13, 2000, January 11, 16).