Caspian region regears: No conflict but residual friction points
By Orkhan Amashov
The circumstances characterising the relations between the five Caspian littoral states, namely Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran, since 1991, have always entailed a palpable degree of complexity regarding the enormous potential for deep cooperation riven by indisputable friction points engendered by the respective nations’ specific interests.
The Sixth Summit of the Heads of State of the Caspian Littoral States, light years away in monumental significance from the previous 2018 Aktau convocation in which the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea was signed, was nevertheless an important occasion.
Foreign policy for all the nations would have been undeniably boring had all the actors involved had shared a relatively identical view on all critical subjects, thereafter resolutely and unquestionably moving towards one uniformly perceived objective. However, the likelihood of this was more than unlikely.
The legal regime applicable to the Caspian Sea was once the cause of what was described as one of the most intractable international disputes. In 2018, this stumbling block was removed, albeit with some residual aftereffects. It is an undeniable fact of life that Iran, a specific nation with its sui generis propensities and time-honoured traditions of diplomacy, has not ratified the Convention yet.
There were some meagre hopes that Moscow would use its diplomatic leverage vis-a-vis its ally Tehran to induce the latter to make a final move. It is generally presumed, in view of its own contemporary exigencies engendered by the present Ukrainian crisis, that the Kremlin might find it more judicious not to use its limited political capital on this subject at this juncture.
Today, by their own self-admission, the Caspian nations do not have a conflict amongst themselves, but there are numerous issues as to which common grounds are yet to be found. The divergent interests mostly emanate from the fact that the area constitutes a crossroads of several geopolitical spheres, and issues involving transshipment, extended connectivity and energy loom large.
Although only two of the five participant countries, namely Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, are technically Central Asian nations, Baku’s Caspian policy is invariably interwoven into its wider interest within the Organisation of Turkic States. It is vital to recalibrate between the two platforms and create a sufficiently fertile environment for the swift implementation of grand projects that require a wider consensus.
To this effect, the fundamental redesign of the East-West transportation routes and an incremental increase in the importance of the Trans-Caspian or Middle Corridor remain the elephant in the room.
It does not require clairvoyance skills to appreciate that not all the littoral states share the self-enthusiasm for the Southern Route. Russia is yet to come to terms with a gradual diversification of communications routes connecting China with Europe.
Nevertheless, the Summit’s overall purpose should not be circumscribed to the achievement of a general consolidation, but should also be viewed in terms of bilateral relations between the littoral states.
In this vein, Baku’s relations with Tehran and Ashgabad are worth mentioning. According to the gas swap deal concluded in November, Iran annually delivers 1.5-2 bcm of Turkmen gas to Azerbaijan. Once increased, this volume could even measurably augment Baku's exports to the EU.
Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are also actively working on the joint "Dostlug" field, which previously was the source of a prolonged dispute between the two Turkic nations. The combined force of the Turkmen gas with Azerbaijan's export logistics infrastructure, enhanced by the added element of connectivity via the Caspian Sea, could potentially have massive implications for the EU's energy security. There remain many hurdles to overcome to achieve tangible progress in this regard.
It behoves a fair-minded observer not given to contrived good-thinking that the Sixth Summit was not rich in surprises and will not go down in the annals of the relations between the Caspian region as a breakthrough. For Azerbaijan, it was a chance to reaffirm its commitment towards multilateral non-aligned diplomacy and the Zangazur corridor project, which was clearly articulated during the summit by President Aliyev.
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