It took more than 20 years for littoral states of the Caspian Sea to reach an agreement that would lay the legal foundations for the full utilization of the region’s resources. The Fifth Caspian Summit in Aktau, Kazakhstan, brought the long-sought breakthrough after leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Iran signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea – a remarkable feat considering that heretofore, barring bilateral deals, the Caspian has been governed by an obsolete 1940 convention between the Soviet Union (of which four current littoral states were a part) and Iran.
As the current Convention incorporates a plethora of tradeoffs between countries, let’s look at them in greater detail so as to grasp the implications of the deal.
The Convention stipulates that relations between littoral states shall be based on principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality among members, non-use of threat of force (it was only 17 years ago that Azerbaijan and Iran almost started a full-blown naval war over contested fields) and non-intervention.
The military-related clauses of the document can be considered a net diplomatic success for the Russian Federation as it prohibits the physical presence of any third-party armed forces, along with banning the provision of a member state’s territory to acts of aggression against any other littoral state. Since Russia is by far the most power nation in terms of both general military clout and military presence around the Caspian, this will placate Russian fears about any potential US (or other) encroachment in the area.
Then there’s energy… Although the Convention establishes a general legal framework for territorial disputes to be solved, it refrains from any particularities. Therefore prolonged negotiations are to be expected with regard to many disputed oilfields, stemming predominantly from Irani and Azerbaijani claims. Iran advocated throughout the entire negotiation process an egalitarian approach to delimiting the seabed (each nation would get 20% of the coast), running counter the other countries’ aspirations. The things is that when Russia concluded its seabed delimitation agreements with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan in 2001 and 2003, respectively, the parties split their parts using the median line. Point 8.1. effectively keeps the delimitation task in the hands of relevant governments, thereby providing a very modest boost to the demarcation of the Southern Caspian (the Northern part is fully delimited).
There are two main territorial conflicts to be settled – the Irani-Azerbaijani and the Azerbaijani-Turkmen disputes. The row between Baku and Teheran revolves around the Araz-Alov-Sharg field (discovered in 1985-1987 by Soviet geologists), the reserves of which are estimated at 300 million tons of oil and 395 BCm of natural gas. Even though the field is only 90 kilometers away from Baku and should seemingly be under Azerbaijan’s grip, if one is to draw a straight line from the Azerbaijani-Irani border most of the field ought to be allotted to Iran (the median would keep most of it in Azerbaijan). As those old enough to remember the 2001 naval ship hostilities would attest, it does matter at what angle the final line is drawn.
The Serdar/Kapaz field (estimated to contain 50 million tons of oil) is the bone of contention between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Considered to be an extension of Azerbaijan’s main oil-producing unit, the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli field, Baku sees it as an indispensable element in its quest to mitigate decreasing oil output numbers. Geographically, Serdar/Kapaz is closer to Turkmenistan, yet here too Azerbaijan might come out the ultimate winner. The Apsheron peninsula stretches out some 60km into the Caspian Sea, in effect extending Azerbaijan’s geographical reach. Absent previous demarcation agreements between Baku and Ashgabat, the settlement will once again boil down to getting the angles right, as in the case of Araz-Alov-Sharg. However, it must be said that a resolution might come about as a by-product of new gas endeavors.
Clause 14, dealing with laying subsea pipelines and cables, is the one most coveted by energy analysts, since it has the potential to significantly alter Europe’s gas supply options.
According to point 14.2., all parties have the right to construct subsea pipelines given that they comply with environmental standards (which are particularly strict in the Caspian Sea). With no further caveat included, some analysts might be tempted to think that Russia will inevitably use the “environmental protection” card when trying to stop the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline (TCP) from Turkmenistan, a pipeline it spent many years to halt. Under current circumstances, when US-Russian relations falling ever deeper into an insurmountable ditch, Moscow’s decision to allow for the construction of the mightily Washington-backed TCP to take place might be perceived as a massive omission.
Since the Turkmen gas is unlikely to find demand in Azerbaijan or Turkey, it would need to take the whole route via the South Caucasus Pipeline, TANAP and TAP. Merely the transportation tariffs from these pipelines would render any transportation economically unviable unless European gas prices rise substantially to levels above $300/MCm. Moreover, the estimated cost of building the subsea TCP of $2 billion is a disabling burden for either Türkmengaz or SOCAR. Thus, allowing the construction of Trans Caspian gas pipelines might be a brilliant ruse from the Russians – cognizant of all the deficiencies above, they can wield it as a sign of good will in their never-ending negotiations with the European the economics for supplying gas to Europe via the Southern Gas Corridor are far from being Union.
This being said, there are natural impediments to see the TCP implemented anytime soon. Azerbaijan might be interested in getting transit fees for Turkmen natural gas, yet it lacks the required infrastructure to include the above volumes in its traditional conduit via Turkey.
All in all, the Caspian convention is a good basis for further negotiations, even though it falls short of being an all-encompassing legal framework. Territorial disputes will most likely remain frozen for quite some time and no new gas pipeline projects will see the light of day unless market conditions change.