Caspian Сonvention Is Signed, but What Are Its Potential Pitfalls?

The signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea is the practical result and undoubted success of the diplomacy of the five Caspian countries, writes Valdai Club expert Bulat Sultanov, Director of the Research Institute for International and Regional Cooperation at the German-Kazakh University. The Convention is a basic document, whose main task is to create conditions to intensify the all-round interaction between the Caspian countries.

A month ago it was difficult to imagine that such different countries as the Islamic Iran, Azerbaijan, which is in a dramatic clinch with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the neutral and equidistant Turkmenistan, Russia, which is under endless western sanctions, and, finally, Kazakhstan, which tries to maintain friendly or partnership relations with the leading global and regional players, will be able to find compromise in the framework of an international agreement. Nevertheless, it happened.

Therefore, the very signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea is already a practical result and an undoubted success of the diplomacy of the five Caspian countries. The Convention is a basic document, whose main task is to create conditions to intensify the all-round interaction between the Caspian countries.

At the same time, it is necessary to take into account that the pace of implementation of this Convention will largely depend on the political will of the signatory countries’ leaders. In Aktau last weekend, they showed such determination. But how the situation will develop depends to a large extent on the degree of tensions between the West and the non-West. If the United States’ shameless pressure on Russia and Iran, which are the de facto leaders of the Caspian Five, intensifies, attempts will be made to split this group by building up ties with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

We hope that the leaders of the Caspian states will be able to maintain the unity potential that they managed to achieve after more than twenty years of negotiations.

In this case, as indicated in the Communique of the Fifth Caspian Summit, within the next 6 months there should be launched a mechanism of regular consultations among the five countries under the auspices of ministries of foreign affairs at the level of deputy ministers. The effectiveness of this mechanism would be the first result of the agreements reached in Aktau. Moreover, many articles in the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea are only outlined.

Among these issues is the construction of trans-Caspian pipelines. According to the Article 14 of the Convention, the Parties can lay underwater cables and underwater main pipelines, in which Azerbaijan is interested first of all. On the one hand, the interested Caspian countries got the right to determine independently the routes of underwater cables and underwater pipelines through their seabed sectors.

On the other hand, the prerequisite for the construction of pipelines means compliance with international environmental requirements. At present, Kazakhstan does not have enough oil to fill the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which has a total throughput capacity of 60 million tons per year. And Azerbaijan objectively cannot extract such volumes of oil. There is a certain hope that in the future oil production will be launched on Kazakhstan’s Kashagan field. But, according to experts, Kashagan oil has a very high proportion of sulfur. In case of a possible accident on the main oil pipeline along the bottom of the Caspian Sea an environmental disaster is inevitable. Moreover, the Caspian Sea region has a high seismicity and a complex geological structure of the seabed, characterized by unpredictable mobility.

Therefore, Russia and Iran, which are not interested in building the Trans-Caspian oil pipeline, have a real opportunity to slow down its implementation.

In this regard, there is a higher probability of constructing a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan along the seabed of the Caspian Sea and then through Georgia and Turkey to the European Union countries, which want to have an alternative to the Russian gas.

But here it is necessary to take into account the position of China, which has been importing gas from Turkmenistan in increasing amounts for years. Neither Turkmenistan, nor any of the Caspian countries are interested in spoiling relations with Beijing, which is actively implementing its ambitious Belt and Road project. Moreover, in one year the fourth gas pipeline from Central Asia to China will be built.

The other Asian giant India is interested in the construction of the TAPI gas pipeline and demonstrates noticeable activity regarding exports of the Turkmen gas.

Therefore, Russia, in order not to irritate Brussels once again, formally agreed with the construction of Trans-Caspian pipelines. But in the near and medium term Moscow cannot be afraid of energy exports from the Caspian countries to the West. For the same reason, Iran took a similar position.

Moscow and Tehran managed to convince their partners to turn the Caspian Sea into a zone of peace, good-neighborhood and friendship and use it only for peaceful purposes. Indeed, the sixth subparagraph of the Article 3 of the Convention provides “non-presence in the Caspian Sea of armed forces not belonging to the Parties”.

Some Russian experts are looking for a “second bottom” in the seventh subparagraph of this article about “non-provision by a Party of its territory to other States to commit aggression and undertake other military actions against any Party.”

It seems to us that these fears are groundless if one carefully reads the content of this subparagraph.

Nevertheless, considering the desire of the West to maintain its leadership within the unipolar world, including the destabilization of the domestic political situation in Russia and Iran, it cannot be ruled out that the non-regional players will under various pretexts try to bring discord among the Caspian Five and disrupt the implementation of the Convention on the Legal status of the Caspian Sea.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.