The five Caspian Sea littorals – Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan – signed (August 12) a Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which has been under discussion over nearly three decades. It defines a special status for the waters, distinct from a sea (where the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea would apply) and a lake (giving all littorals equal share). The surface waters of the Caspian Sea would be open for common usage, but the seabed would be divided through bilateral agreements, thus opening the door to trans-Caspian pipelines by mutual agreement of countries whose sea beds would be transited. The five countries agreed that no military presence of non-littorals would be permissible in the waters.
A number of factors may have combined to ensure that this decades-old issue was resolved at this time. For Russia and Iran, under relentless pressure from the United States, the agreement to keep outside military presence from the Caspian Sea is important, particularly in the context of assiduous US cultivation of Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, Turkmenistan. Iran’s current vulnerable situation may have driven it to accept a solution which would give it the least benefits (because it has the smallest coastline). Russia has so far effectively blocked, using environmental and legal arguments, Turkmen gas and Kazakh oil from moving west to Europe, threatening its own stranglehold on supplies to that continent. As China tightens its economic grip on Central Asia and the US threatens Russia’s dominance with sanctions and LNG supplies, Russia may see some tactical advantage in tolerating some westward flow of Central Asian energy supplies.
From an Indian perspective, it would be interesting to see how revived interest of Western gas companies in trans-Caspian pipelines would impact on their assessment of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which transits through a more volatile region than the trans-Caspian route.
August 30, 2018