Caspian states’ leaders seal security deal

Stalled status accord may be signed in 2011

BAKU – The leaders of the five Caspian littoral states signed an agreement on security cooperation at their meeting held in Baku on Thursday, in a bid to make headway on the stalling solution of the legal status of the resource-rich Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran, affirming their "exclusive right" to ensure the basin’s security, agreed to cooperate in countering terror, organized crime, drug trafficking, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and poaching, as well as to jointly carry out rescue work.

The Caspian states’ leaders also adopted a statement reaffirming their intention to sign a convention establishing a new legal status for the Caspian.

It is the third time the Caspian states’ leaders met in an effort to draw up a suitable legal regime for the sea in order to divide its natural resources.

The status of the basin has been unresolved for over a decade. Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan signed an agreement in 2001 on the delineation of the Caspian’s northern area into national sectors, with Azerbaijan and Russia each possessing 19 percent, while the Central Asian state received 29 percent. However, the other two coastal nations, Iran and Turkmenistan, did not sign the agreement. Iran supports division of the seabed into five equal sectors.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a news briefing following the Baku summit that the convention on the Caspian legal status may be signed in a year at a meeting of the littoral countries’ leaders in Russia. "I hope that we will be able to put a full stop on this very important issue."

The Caspian states’ leaders agreed during the summit to hold meetings in the same format every year. The latest Caspian summit took place three years ago in Tehran.

President Medvedev said participants had held constructive discussions on a variety of issues, including delimitation of the maritime borders. He said that the sides had apparently managed to strike a common ground. Medvedev said the presidents agreed to draw up delimitation plans to fix the width of national maritime zones to 24-25 nautical miles within the next three months.

"This paves the way for a fully-fledged agreement on the status of the Caspian Sea," he added.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in his remarks at the summit opening, said it was time to reach a consensus on the Caspian status, though he noted that the issue being unresolved does not affect the friendly relations among the coastal nations. He reminded that Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan have already agreed the division of the Caspian seabed and that it was pivotal today to step up economic cooperation among the littoral states "to turn the Caspian into a sea of friendship".

Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev said prolific cooperation requires fully resolving the Caspian status issue.

Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said delimitation of the Caspian must comply with international law and this legal issue should not be politicized.

"Turkmenistan is firmly confident that new pipelines to transport Caspian oil and gas can be laid strictly upon consent of the countries whose sectors they will cross, and certainly while abiding by all conditions of environmental safety," Berdymukhamedov said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called to agree the Caspian legal status by 2011. "For this to happen, meetings in the five-lateral format should be continued. This format is more reliable for coordinating all outstanding issues."

Ahmadinejad suggested inclusion in the Caspian littoral states’ agenda establishment of joint shipping companies, concessions on customs duties, boosting trade, and linking energy supply routes.

The Iranian president termed as a key element for Caspian security a concerted effort of the coastal nations in countering threats to stability in the region and the interference of outside players.

Despite expectations, Azerbaijani analysts say a deal on the Caspian status is unlikely to be signed earlier than in 40 to 50 years.

Vafa Guluzada, an Azerbaijani former state adviser, who heads the Khazar (Caspian) Research Foundation, says that an agreement on the issue is being impeded by claims leveled by superpowers Russia and Iran. "For such a document to be signed, two things have to happen: Russia is to collapse and Iran is to be neutralized by the West."

Elkhan Shahinoglu, the head of Baku-based Atlas research center, said that according to the Caspian states’ diplomats, the security deal signed in Baku could pave the way for a final agreement on the basin’s status.

"But I don’t think Iran will take a concessional step on the status issue. The Iranian president is again speaking about a fair division of the sea in Baku. In their opinion, such a division means splitting the Caspian into five equal sectors, which is impossible. What I can see is that it will not be possible to arrive at a common ground on the Caspian status."

Another issue mulled at the Baku summit was fishing sturgeons, a valuable fish whose stocks are falling. The five nations may introduce a five-year moratorium on sturgeon fishing within the next three months. The proposal to work out a mechanism for enforcing the measure was put forward by Kazakhstan, which previously opposed such a ban, and is backed by Iran and Russia.