01 октября 2014 19:50

Caspian water delimitation agreement - a version of sea status


Zulfiya Amanzholova ©Renat Tashkinbayev Zulfiya Amanzholova ©Renat Tashkinbayev

On the eve of the Caspian Summit on September 29 Ambassador-at-Large of Kazakh Foreign Ministry Zulfiya Amanzholova spoke to the Kazakh journalists about Kazakhstan's position on the Caspian Sea delimitation into territorial waters, fishing zone and common water zone, Tengrinews reports. 

On the eve of the Caspian Summit on September 29 Ambassador-at-Large of Kazakh Foreign Ministry Zulfiya Amanzholova spoke to the Kazakh journalists about Kazakhstan's position on the Caspian Sea delimitation into territorial waters, fishing zone and common water zone, Tengrinews reports. 

With an area of some 440,000 square kilometers, the Caspian Sea is the largest landlocked body of water in the world shared by five littoral states: Kazakhstan, Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The countries have long been unable to reach a consensus on a number of issues concerning the legal status of the Caspian Sea and demarcation of its water and shelf.

The issue of the status is on the agenda because in spite of being very large the Caspian Sea is technically a lake - it is landlocked and has no outflowing rivers.

According to Zulfiya Amanzholova, the Caspian Sea status itself is no longer a key issue on Kazakhstan's agenda. “We receded from the discussion of whether the Caspian Sea is a lake or a sea 15 years ago. For us, this discussion is not a priority. The delegations are delimiting and negotiating to divide the Caspian Sea and set uniform rules of operation," she said.

Kazakhstan adopted this stance back in the 1990s. In part it pursues application of the United Nations 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. “Kazakhstan stands for establishing territorial waters, fishing zone and common water area in the Caspian Sea. As for the delimitation of the seabed, Kazakhstan supports direct negotiations between the neighboring and contralateral states of the Caspian Sea based on the principles and standards of the international law,” Zulfiya Amanzholova said.

Effectively this means that Kazakhstan wants the Caspian Sea to be vested with the status of a sea in the part of its water. 

The next day after the announcement was made, on September 30, Kazakhstan got its wish. The joint statement of the Caspian Five after the meeting of the presidents of Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in Astrakhan almost repeated the stance of Kazakhstan on the matter.

The countries agreed to make the waters extending 15 nautical miles out from their coastlines the sovereign domains, extend exclusive fishing rights to 10 more nautical miles located further off their coasts and acknowledge the rest of the sea a joint property.

No one at the summit spelled out that the decision literally vested the Caspian Sea with a version of the status of a sea, but in fact it is very close to being this way and this milestone decision can become a base point to fully legalise the sea status at a later date. At this point however, this agreement applies only to the water part of the Caspian Sea, not its subsoil. 

If the Caspian Sea was actually defined as a sea then under the international law each country would get its own national sector extending out from its shoreline and comprising both water and subsoil.

Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan would have benefited from the sea status the most because there are hydrocarbons in their sections of the Caspian Sea. Of them, Kazakhstan - notorious for its gigantic offshore Kashagan oil and gas field at the Caspian shelf - has the longest coastline and its section of the Caspian Sea is estimated to contain more than a half of the Caspian Sea's hydrocarbon reserves.

The sea status, however, would have injured the interests of Iran badly. Its short coastline would have gotten the country a section of only 13 percent of the Sea and it would be the one largely unexplored and poor in terms of oil and gas deposits. 

On the other hand, if the Caspian Five were to agree that the Caspian Sea was a lake, then under the international law they would have to share the sea and its resources and equally divide profits from the resources, which the Oil Producing Three would surely not tolerate.

With delimitation of the subsoil riches being such a sensitive issue for the five countries, at this point they wisely decided to divide only the water part of the sea and leave the subsoil to bilateral agreements, at least until the next Caspian Summit to be held in 2015 in Kazakhstan. 

Zulfiya Amanzholova explained that problems related to the legal status of the Caspian Sea were multifaceted. “The issue of the legal status of the Caspian Sea is very broad and it is difficult to say that there is only one problem. All the issues are interconnected. Therefore, we need to find mutually acceptable solutions,” Zulfiya Amanzholova said.

“I cannot say that the problem is not being solved. It is gradually being settled. The countries’ positions are getting closer. Every state has its own national interests and each of them stands up for them. The Caspian Sea issues involve five countries, so we need a consensus of all five. And it is not an easy task. It is important that all the states are satisfied,” she said.

The problem of dividing the Caspian Sea and defining its legal status emerged in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before that, the Caspian Sea was controlled by the USSR and Iran based on two agreements: the 1921 Treaty between the USSR and Persia and the Agreement on Commerce and Navigation between the USSR and Iran of 1940.

After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the Caspian Sea became the matter of five littoral countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. And the Soviet-Persian agreements that divided the sea in half were no longer valid. 

Definition of the legal status is immediately linked to settlement of the 5 countries' boundaries in the Caspian Sea. The process is complicated by the fact that the Caspian shelf is extremely reach in natural resources - 79 billion barrels of oil and 7 trillion cubic metres of natural gas, and its waters are inhabited by sturgeon valued for its black caviar that constitutes 90% of the global sturgeon population.

At this week's Caspian Summit Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan called the Caspian Sea "a sea of opportunities." Given the abundance of resources in the Caspian Sea, the Caspian states are eager hold on to the opportunities and carve out a good deal for themselves, which makes reaching a consensus extremely difficult.

In a situation so complicated this week's pentalateral agreement on water and fishing zone delimitation is a breakthrough and a huge step forward from the stagnation point the Caspian Sea status has been in for nearly 20 years.

By Tatyana Kuzmina and Assel Satubaldina (Renat Taskinbayev contributed to the story)

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