The five states surrounding the sea – Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – have reached difficult compromises on sovereign and exclusive rights as well as freedom of navigation
The long-awaited deal on the legal status of the Caspian Sea signed on Sunday in the Kazakh port of Aktau is a defining moment in the ongoing, massive drive towards Eurasia integration.
Up to the early 19th century, the quintessentially Eurasian body of water – a connectivity corridor between Asia and Europe over a wealth of oil and gas – was exclusive Persian property. Imperial Russia then took over the northern margin. After the break up of the USSR, the Caspian ended up being shared by five states; Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
Very complex negotiations went on for almost two decades. Was the Caspian a sea or a lake? Should it be divided between the five states into separate, sovereign tracts or developed as a sort of condominium?
Slowly but surely, the five states reached difficult compromises on sovereign and exclusive rights; freedom of navigation; “freedom of access of all the vessels from the Caspian Sea to the world’s oceans and back” – in the words of a Kazakh diplomat; pipeline installation; and crucially, on a military level, the certitude that only armed forces from the five littoral states should be allowed in Caspian waters.
No wonder then that President Putin, in Aktau, described the deal in no uncertain terms as having “epoch-making significance.”
A sea or a lake?
So is the Caspian now a sea or a lake? It’s complicated; the convention signed in Aktau defines it as a sea, but subject to a “special legal status.”
This means the Caspian is regarded as open water, for common use – but the seabed and subsoil are divided. Still a work in progress, the devil is in the details in sorting out how the seabed is divided.
According to the draft text, published two months ago by Russia’s Kommersant, “the delimitation of the floor and mineral resources of the Caspian Sea by sector will be carried out by agreement between the neighboring and facing states taking into account generally recognized principles and legal norms.” Stanislav Pritchin,