Russian government approves draft convention on legal status of Caspian Sea

BISHKEK (TCA) — The Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea is expected to be signed later this year by the five Caspian littoral states—Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran. We are republishing this article on the issue, written by Azad Garibov, originally published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor:

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree, on June 21, approving the Draft Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea. And he encouraged President Vladimir Putin to ultimately sign the Convention (Pravo.gov.ru, June 22). Even though the complete official text of the Convention is yet to be revealed, major Russian news agencies, including Interfax and state-owned TASS, have provided summaries of the key provisions of the document. The five Caspian littoral states—Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran—have been debating the issue of the sea’s legal status for the last 16 years. Their agreement was mostly finalized in 2017 (RIA Novosti, December 5, 2017) and is expected to be signed later this year (Azernews, March 15, 2018).

The Draft Convention defines and regulates the rights and obligations of the parties with respect to the use of the Caspian Sea, including its waters, bottom, subsoil, natural resources and airspace over the sea. According to reports, the document states that the littoral states have the right to establish territorial waters not exceeding 15 nautical miles from the coast and a further 10 nautical miles are defined as exclusive fishing zones. The remaining surface of the sea is kept for common use (TASS, June 22). Article 6 of the document reportedly proclaims that the state sovereignty of the littoral states spreads over the surface of the sea until the outer border of their territorial waters, as well as to the seabed below and airspace above this area (Interfax, June 22). While the principle of the delimitation of the seabed to the five sectors and common use of the surface waters is confirmed, the key and most problematic question—the principles, measures or exact contours of the seabed delimitation—still remains unclear based on the revealed details of the Draft Convention.

Still, one of the most import points found in the recent reporting is the clarification of the right of the littoral states to lay underwater pipelines. According to Article 14 of the Draft Convention, the parties may lay underwater cables and pipelines along the bottom of the Caspian Sea, subject only to the agreement of those states whose sectors the pipelines or cables will pass through. Until now, Russia and Iran had both argued against various underwater pipeline projects in the Caspian Sea—most notably against the proposed trans-Caspian pipeline to deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to European customers—on the grounds that any such project has to obtain consent from all the littoral states until the sea’s legal status is clarified (Interfax, June 22).

The second important takeaway is related to naval forces in the Caspian. Article 3 of the document reportedly establishes that the Caspian Sea is closed to the armed forces of all countries except those of the five littoral states (Report.az, June 25). This point effectively legalizes an important principle first put forth in the final communiqué of the Caspian five’s Astrakhan (Russia) summit in 2014 (see EDM, May 5, 2014; July 25, 2016). The Draft Convention also agrees that military vessels of one of the parties that pass through the territorial waters of any of the others have the right to enter ports and stay within the territorial waters when “there is a corresponding permit or it is necessary due to force majeure or disaster or to assist persons, ships and aircraft in distress” (Report.az, June 25). Any other military maneuvers carried out within or in the close proximity of the borders of the territorial waters of another littoral state will be considered “violating the peace in the sea” that threatens the security of that respective littoral state (Interfax, June 22).

The Convention also states that the parties have the right to establish special “security zones” in any area of their respective sectors around constructed artificial islands, bases or other objects (not exceeding 500 meters from any outer point of those objects). All the littoral states have to be duly informed about the construction of such objects and borders of their security zones, and they should not undermine the sovereign rights of the other parties over the common surface of the sea (Interfax, June 22).

The recent approval of the Draft Convention by the head of government of the most powerful actor in the Caspian region reinforces Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov comments from March 2018, when he declared, “With a high degree of certainty, the Convention will be signed at the 5th Caspian summit of presidents, in Kazakhstan, this year” (Azernews, March 15). However, some key points must still be clarified before any such grand event might take place.

Most notably, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan will need to resolve the issue of delimitation of the seabed in the southern Caspian. In the past, these three neighbors had threatened military force to “persuade” each other to stop the exploration of disputed offshore oil and gas fields. Not surprisingly, therefore, when Lavrov stated after the December 2017 meeting of the Caspian five’s foreign ministers in Moscow that “all the key issues regarding the delimitation of the Caspian Sea had been resolved,” Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Mammadyarov indicated that some issues were still in dispute. Moreover, Iranian diplomats asserted that any suggestion that Iran’s share of the Caspian Sea has been finalized is “a false and unfounded remark, misleading public opinion” (CACI Analyst, January 25).

At the same time, the heightened frequency of meetings of the special high-level working group tasked with preparing the Convention demonstrates that, on the one hand, there are still some important discrepancies in the positions of the littoral states that need to be settled, while on the other, the littoral states clearly want to try to finalize the Convention’s text before the presidential summit in Kazakhstan. Since the beginning of 2018, the working group has already met four times (overall, 51 times since the beginning of negations), the most recent of which took place in Astana in late May of this year (Azertag.az, May 25). Moreover, recent agreements between Azerbaijan and Iran on cooperation in exploration of offshore Caspian hydrocarbon resources (Contact.az, March 29; see EDM, April 5), as well as similar recent agreements between Iran and Turkmenistan (Irna.ir, April 4) boost the prospects that existing discrepancies among the littoral states will in fact be overcome. The Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea will likely be signed in the near future.