Over the past 27 years, the status of the Caspian Sea has been a matter of heated geopolitical discussion. Much of the dispute hinged on whether the world’s largest inland water body should be considered a lake or a sea.
The Caspian didn’t make waves before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when it was shared only between the Soviet Union and Iran, which classified it a lake in 1921 and 1940 treaties.
The years after 1991 witnessed a long debate between Russia, Iran, and the three independent states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union and now bordered the body of water: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. How the Caspian would end up defined would determine how it should be regulated and who gets access to what.
History of the legal dispute
Typically, a body of water surrounded by land is called a lake, but the immense size of the Caspian, stretching over 371,000 square meters and holding nearly 78,000 cubic kilometers of water, would seem to exceed reasonable definitions of the term lake.
The Caspian is also technically not a sea, as it has no direct access to an ocean.
And thus, confusion arose – and lingered for years, entailing economic, military and political implications.
If the Caspian were called a sea, then its waters should be considered international waters, subject to the United Nations Conventions on the Law of Sea.
In this scenario, each of the Caspian’s five littoral states would get access to roughly equal portions of the sea based on the length of their coastlines. Kazakhstan, in this case, has the longest coastline, meaning its portion of the sea would be the biggest. Iran’s would be the smallest.
If the Caspian was deemed a lake, then international sea laws would no longer apply, and the water body would become solely a matter for its five littoral states, who could divide it into national sectors.
The Aktau Summit and the Caspian Convention
After more than two decades of diplomatic negotiations, more than 10 meetings of foreign ministers and four summits at the presidential level, the five states gathered in Aktau in western Kazakhstan August 12, 2018, to sign the Caspian Convention, which, to the surprise of many, defined the Caspian as neither lake nor sea.
Instead, the countries decided, the Caspian has a “special legal status.”
The convention grants the states jurisdiction over 15 miles of territorial waters extending from their coastlines and exclusive fishing rights over an additional 10 miles. The rest of the water is subject to bilateral agreements between the littoral countries.
The document regulates internal waters, territorial seas, exclusive economic zones, high seas, sovereignty over the seas and ownership as well as the boundaries of the littoral countries with regard to the sea’s surface, bed, and subsoil resources.
“Such a document was needed, because… these agreements [between Iran and the Soviet Union] regulated the cooperation only of two countries and with three more littoral states, there was a need for another document. The issue was not only a matter of territorial demarcation and its resources, but also big geopolitics, because the region has natural resources, primarily oil and gas, and their presence entailed the difficulties that the sides faced,” said Stanislav Pritchin, head of analytical group at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow, in an interview for this story.
The Caspian was designated a “region of peace,” he added.
“The sides agreed and obliged that all conflicts regarding the Caspian will be resolved only through the means of peaceful diplomatic negotiations and forbid handing over territory for aggression against Caspian states,” he added.
The document also, for the first time, regulates transnational projects, including the construction of pipelines. This can have a meaningful impact both existing and planned pipelines both in the Caspian and further west such as the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline to Turkey and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline.
“The sides initially had very different approaches; for instance, regarding the construction of trans-Caspian gas pipelines. Turkmenistan insisted that the issues should be decided only between the countries taking part in the construction. Russia and Iran advocated that because the ecology is very vulnerable there any transborder projects, in case of an environmental disaster, will affect every country. The protocol on transborder projects envisions special procedures, but it does not ban [such projects]. If Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are to build the pipeline, they need to ensure the project and construction is a transparent process and should be considered by neighbors,” he said.
Though the document forbids the presence of foreign militaries in the Caspian, outside players still do possess a significant economic stake in the region.
“That’s why there were diplomatic confrontations, for example, over the issue of security. Theoretically, the United States would want to have a military presence in the region, but in order not to create additional tension and destabilize the situation, such system needed to remain isolated from foreign actors,” said Pritchin.
The Caspian Sea agreement has been a “small move in a big game at play,” says Charles J. Sullivan, assistant professor of political science and international relations at Nazarbayev University in Nur-Sultan.
“Russia is trying to solidify its hegemonic position in the former post-Soviet region in a time of uncertainty and this agreement helps Russia realize this aim to some extent. To be (or remain) a great power, one needs a strong military, a robust economy, a large population, and a zone of cultural, political and economic influence. I don’t question Russia’s military strength, but I think that Russia is greatly concerned about these other three issues,” he told EdgeKz.
Why is it so important?
Aside from its massive size, the Caspian Sea is rich in oil and natural gas. It is estimated there are 50 billion barrels of oil and nearly 8.4 trillion cubic meters of natural gas beneath its seabed.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Caspian region witnessed a massive surge in oil production, with some of the world’s biggest oil and gas corporations entering the field. Kazakhstan’s largest oil and gas field, Kashagan – the fifth largest in the world – is located offshore in the Caspian Sea. Though production began only recently, the potential for development is significant, being the country’s largest international investment project. Kashagan is developed by the North Caspian Operating Company which brings together major internationals such as Royal Dutch Shell, Eni, Total and ExxonMobil.
The Caspian Sea is also of vital geopolitical importance to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as they are all landlocked. The Caspian Sea, therefore, is a key transportation and trade route for these nations, connecting them to the world beyond their nearest neighbors.
Oil and gas are not the sea’s only riches: it is also rich with caviar-producing sturgeon. Between 80 to 90 percent of the world’s caviar comes from the Caspian Sea.
What comes next?
Four countries have already ratified the convention, while Iran has yet to do that.
“The main issue facing the littoral states revolves around which country gets access to these deposits and whether any state can build a pipeline across the sea. The 2018 international summit in Aktau has not completely resolved this issue. As the regional hegemon, Russia does not want to see any pipelines built that would undermine its privileged position as an energy supplier to the European Union,” said Sullivan.
“The main takeaway from the 2018 Caspian Sea agreement, as I see it, is that only the navies of the littoral states may patrol the sea. Russia is thus signaling to the United States and European Union to stay out of its backyard pool,” he said.
Pritchin said some more issues need to be addressed.
“The only three issues that need be to addressed remain between Azerbaijan and Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and Turkmenistan and Iran. All other issues at the Caspian, regarding the sectors, are resolved,” said Pritchin.