Tatiana Sinitsyna, editor-in-chief Caspian sailors knot / SCO Shanghai Cooperation Organization

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Caspian sailors knot
19.09.2013 11:16 Tatiana Sinitsyna, editor-in-chief

It has become a tradition to organize another “brainstorm” of the Caspian problem in September. Created by the Soviet Union’s breakup, which made the Caspian Sea, the world’s biggest intracontinental sea, a property of five sovereign states, the problem of the sea heritage has not been resolved in 25 years, since everyone wants to dispose of it in their own way.

Hereditary issues are always difficult, both legally and morally. Meanwhile, the Caspian Sea, whose shores belong to five nations, can be described as a difficult, but rich legacy. The question is how to divide it fairly, true to conscience and law and at the same time protect the interests of the sea itself, without damaging this living organism, the unique artifact of the primeval world ocean!

This is a hard nut to crack, but the search for an acceptable “Caspian paradigm” is on. The dialog that began three years ago opens new opportunities in this respect. Its third round took place in Aktau, Kazakhstan. The small, serene (yet!) town, which nevertheless has an ambitious future, hosted the International Forum, which this time was held under the auspices of the SCO Business Council. Its full title was Energy Cooperation and Security in Central Asia: the SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union. The theme and the goal behind it are the same: coordination of energy strategies of Central Asian and Caspian states. This is not an easy thing to do, but it needs to be done.

Sergei Kanavsky, executive secretary of the SCO Business Council, said ahead of the event that the conference in Aktau was seen as part of cooperation within the SCO Business Council, which, in turn, aims at assisting the business community with promoting different cooperation projects and informing each other about promising areas of interaction.

Participants of the Aktau forum discussed innovative cooperation in power generation, planned presentation of projects in power engineering, transport, construction of pipelines and ships using composite materials. They considered prospects of setting up an SCO Energy Club, which would focus on different approaches and find points of tangency and mutual understanding on remaining problems in relations between the SCO member states and observers.

The forum envisaged several sessions, including discussions of innovative cooperation in power generation, presentation of projects in power engineering, transport, construction of pipelines and ships using composite materials. The participants considered national energy strategies of the SCO member states, promising projects of international cooperation in traditional and alternative power generation and also – in order to provide expert assistance to the setup of the SCO Energy Club – possible models of interaction between the SCO member states in the energy sector. A separate session, involving members of parliament from Russia, Kazakhstan and other SCO and Caspian states was devoted to Prospects of Inter-Parliamentary Cooperation.

The Forum was attended by energy professionals, renowned scientists, politicians, government officials, businessmen and representatives of non-government organizations from Kazakhstan, Russia, the United States, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and other Asian and European countries.

But why has the Caspian Sea become a sailor’s knot? The ongoing disputes center mainly on its resources, estimates of which vary. Some experts believe that the sea’s hydrocarbon reserves are very huge, while others maintain that their global importance are a myth. At present, its proven reserves total 3.1 trillion cu m of gas and 2.95 billion metric tons of oil. These are serious figures, but they pale beside the potential of the world’s biggest oil and gas producing area, i.e. the Greater Middle East. The Caspian contribution to global production is now just about 2.5%. Still, it is oil.

Caught in the magic of geopolitical slogans, the European Union has made it clear that it intends to interfere with the jurisdiction of the Caspian states and lay a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline across the sea. But how can this beautiful dream become a reality? At present, the sea bottom belongs to everyone and no one. Like the water area, it remains non-demarcated due to different stands of the five littoral states, and nobody knows when a consensus will be reached.

The most sensitive issue out of all is the laying of a pipeline. There are five owners of the sea, and even though two of them are dying to implement the Trans-Caspian project, others, at least Russia and Iran, are unequivocally against it and are unlikely to change their mind. Kazakhstan has been reticent so far, but the economic temptation is strong, and its stand is shifting towards interest in the pipeline, or even parting with the illusion. It is easy to understand Astana: the country has the longest shoreline and has discovered serious hydrocarbon reserves off shore; the first oil was received just recently. Today, Astana is trying to find a balance of interests and has come up with an initiative to export its oil northwards, with the help of Russia’s Transneft, as opposed to the southern route, via Azerbaijan.

Russia is also adjusting its stand on the Caspian Sea. Initially, it proposed the principle of a condominium (joint use of the sea), but did not find support among its partners. Then it proposed the principle of “point jurisdiction.” Moscow is emphasizing the environmental issue, which is traditionally not considered a priority, with increasing insistence.

The Caspian Sea is landlocked and if there is an accident, there will be hell to pay: an environmental catastrophe will be inevitable. Even today, without any serious accidents, oil film is already spreading to some areas – a side effect of intensive oil production. The nature responds to the man’s industrial challenge by a frightening diminishing of bio resources.

But the environmental component was barely touched upon at the Forum. The truth is that to the nature’s point-blank question “Oil or black caviar?” people answered “Oil!” long ago.

When the Caspian Sea belonged to two powers, the Soviet Union and Iran, everything was easy. The good neighbors determined the sea’s legal status in the Treaty between Russia and Persia of 1921 and the Soviet-Iranian treaty of commerce and seafaring of 1940. These documents set a regime of free seafaring across the entire sea, free fishing except for the 10-mile national zones and banned ships of non-Caspian states from the sea. It received the status of an “internal water body.”

Today, each littoral state is claiming its right for the water area and sea resources. Having drawn national sectors at will, with errors in their favor, they have been unable to reach a common agreement on the borders of the sea shelf and bottom for twenty years. The Caspian Five is torn apart by contradictions – political, economic and scientific, different national interests, opposite approaches to sea management and different views on implementation of the energy resources program.

Baku, for example, is pressing for mechanical division of the entire sea into national sectors, insists on its sovereign right for the sea bottom, water body and air above it. Its key argument is that the Caspian Sea is actually a lake, so the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea should not be applied to it. This means that pipes can be laid without asking neighbors’ permission – it is enough to have an agreement with one’s partners. Another important consideration: if there is no sea, there is no right for marine uses – each country should be content with its own piece of the Caspian. But each piece is different, and this adds to the intrigue of the ongoing dispute about the sea’s division.

Indeed, the Caspian Sea does not have access to the ocean, but this unique water body, situated on the border between Europe and Asia, is the World Ocean’s own child; some time ago, it was connected to it via the Azov and Black Seas and has a similar type of the bottom, which is confirmed by geological, physical-geographic and other data.

Iran, the owner of the smallest piece of the Caspian, believes that the sea should be common property of the Caspian Five. Its proposal on division of the water body envisages a 20-mile zone of territorial waters for each state and a similar economic zone. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan do not agree to this proposal, considering it unprofitable for themselves. However, the stands of the Caspian partners are as unstable as the Caspian weather, they are constantly adjusted and changed, and all this creates turbulence, jumpiness and tension.

In response to all this confusion, the sea has been militarized. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are building naval bases and buying boats and ships. Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan are strengthening their fleets. Calling a spade a spade, an arms race is underway in the sea area. But does the world need another trouble spot?

Experts have estimated that there have already been over 300 meetings of different levels to discuss different aspects of the Caspian problem. But it has been to no avail. Still, the parties will have to reach some or other agreement, because there is no alternative. Only common sense and good will, aiming at a consensus, will be able to untangle the Caspian knot.

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