By Leman Mammadova
The Caspian region is attracting the enormous interest of many countries, which is primarily due to the region’s rich oil reserves as well as the important geopolitical position.
After the signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in 2018, the issue of economic development of the Caspian region became particularly important.
The strategic importance of the Caspian Sea in regional and interregional geopolitical and geo-economic processes, its role as a major transit, transport and logistics hub require the further integration of the Caspian littoral states in the main areas of cooperation.
The First Caspian Economic Forum was held on August 11-12 in the city of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan.
The delegations of the Caspian countries, led by the Azerbaijani Prime Minister Novruz Mammadov, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Iran's First Vice-President Eshag Jahangiri, and Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Askar Mamin, participated at the forum.
The event was also attended by delegations led by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, and Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov as guests, as well as representatives of the banking sector and entrepreneurs of the Caspian region, researchers and heads of companies involved in economic development.
The First Caspian Economic Forum discussed the development of trade and economic relations, mainly, creating conditions for large projects, the role of the Caspian region in the global economic context, investment attractiveness in the fields of oil and gas, electricity, transport, trade, agriculture, tourism and other areas of mutual interest to the Caspian littoral states.
Making opening remarks, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov stressed that the efficient use of hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian Sea can be a powerful impetus for the economic growth in the region. He noted that the countries of the region should be focused on solving urgent practical issues for the development of the Caspian, adding that the “Caspian energy” should become the basis for the dynamic development of the region’s economy.
"The increase in hydrocarbon production in the Caspian Sea can dramatically change the economic picture in the region, integrate it into the global economic space as an equal and effective partner," said Berdimuhamedov.
In his speech, Novruz Mammadov described the Forum as a new format for enhancing cooperation between the Caspian littoral states and expressed the hope that this Forum will give additional impetus to cooperation in trade, transport, investment and tourism areas.
Touching upon the Caspian Innovation Technologies Exhibition within the Forum, Mammadov expressed his hope that holding such exhibitions will contribute to the expansion of economic relations between the business circles of Caspian littoral countries and improvement of information content in the region, and the organization of meetings between entrepreneurs in general will play a significant role in the prosperity of the region.
"The Azerbaijani side fully supports the holding of such meetings of the business circles on the sidelines of other official high-level events, and pays special attention to the development of bilateral relations with the Caspian states based on mutual respect and trust," Mammadov noted.
He further stressed Azerbaijan’s high level of trade relations with the Caspian countries, noting that the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and the Caspian states increased by more than 28 percent in the first half of 2019 compared to the corresponding period of the previous year.
"Over the same period, the share of the Caspian states in the foreign trade turnover of the country amounted to more than 11 percent. I hope that the meetings of business circles organized within the framework of this Forum will lead to an even greater increase in mutual trade," he said.
Mammadov went on to note that ensuring the development of international and regional transport corridors plays an important role in improving the efficiency of the regional economy, adding that joint projects in the field of transport, infrastructure and logistics expand the economic opportunities and significance of Caspian littoral states.
"The favorable geographical position of our countries, large-scale projects being implemented here, the efficient use of the transit and cargo transportation potential provide good opportunities for a steady increase in revenues from this sphere,” Mammadov noted.
He added that Azerbaijan is actively cooperating in the framework of such international projects as East-West and North-South. For example, transit goods with a total weight of more than 9 million tons were transported through the territory of Azerbaijan in 2018. Particularly strong growth was observed in transit of non-oil products, which amounted to 49 percent.
“There was a boost by 8 times in volumes of transit of goods along the North-South route. These figures prove once again that transit routes continue to expand, trade turnover is increasing, which ultimately leads to the prosperity of the whole region," he said.
Speaking of the Baku International Sea Trade Port, Mammadov noted that after putting it into operation, this logistics center became the intersection of roads, railways and sea routes in the region. "The capacity of this port at the moment is 15 million tons of cargo and 100,000 containers per year. It is planned to increase these indicators to 25 million tons of cargo and 1 million containers.”
He added that Azerbaijan has the largest merchant fleet in the Caspian Sea, consisting of 260 ships. The creation of a free economic zone around the port will create conditions for the development of cooperation in the trade, economic and transport sectors, said Mammadov.
Other speakers also emphasized that the Caspian Sea is an important linking factor that contributes to deepening cooperation between the Caspian littoral states. They expressed confidence that the Caspian Economic Forum will become an important platform for discussing pressing issues of mutual economic activity, will reveal the extremely rich potential of the region and will bring tangible benefits to the development of Caspian littoral countries.
An international conference, the Caspian Innovation Technologies Exhibition, and meetings of representatives of business circles and companies were organized as part of the Forum.
At the meeting of the heads of the competent economic authorities of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, the sides signed an agreement on trade and economic cooperation. The main topics of discussion were the role and place of the region's economies in the global system of world economic relations, the potential for expanding interaction in the areas of the digital economy and special economic zones.
The agenda also included the possibility of implementing joint investment projects and programs, as well as the simplification of the visa regime, which in the future will have a positive impact on the economic growth of the region.
As part of the visit, Novruz Mammadov also met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Berdimuhamedov expressed Turkmenistan’s interest to develop long-term partnership with Azerbaijan in accordance with the centuries-old traditions of friendship and good neighborliness.
The sides discussed the current state and prospects for development of bilateral dialogue. At the meeting, it was noted that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as neighbors in the Caspian region, are strategic partners in the search for ways to solve the pressing problems of today.
Mammadov also met with Iranian First Vice-President Eshag Jahangiri. During the meeting, Mammadov stressed the successful development of bilateral relations, and noted the high level of political ties between the two countries. He underlined the expansion of economic cooperation, the implementation of important projects between the two countries.
Jahangiri, in turn, said that economic cooperation between Azerbaijan and Iran is developing successfully, noting the importance of implementing joint projects for cooperation both at the bilateral and regional levels.
The parties pointed out the importance of the meeting to be held in Sochi within the framework of the Azerbaijan-Russia-Iran Summit at the level of heads of state for the regional cooperation of the countries.
The sides also discussed the prospects of cooperation and development of ties between Azerbaijan and Iran in various fields.
The initiative to hold the First Caspian Economic Forum in Turkmenistan was put forward by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov at the 5th Summit of the Heads of the Caspian Littoral States in Aktau, Kazakhstan, on August 12, 2018, when the littoral states reached an agreement after 22 years of systematic talks and signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea.
The second Caspian Economic Forum is scheduled to be held in Astrakhan, Russia.