In 1996, the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan held the first meeting dedicated to resolving the issues of the Caspian Sea legal regime with special attention paid to harmonizing positions and developing common approaches towards drafting the Convention on the Caspian Legal Status. Over the past 21 years, a long process of negotiation was held on the Caspian Convention, during which 7 such ministerial meetings took place, the most recent of which was held in Moscow on December 5, 2017. It is no exaggeration to say that the outcomes of this last meeting have given rise to strong optimism that the parties could finally reach a compromise on the Caspian delimitation issue. At the press conference following the talks, Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov stated that the heads of the foreign ministries have not only discussed the most problematic issues of the Caspian agenda, including the delimitation of the seabed and subsoil of the Caspian Sea, navigation in the territorial and internal waters and laying of pipelines (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, 2017), but also agreed on major issues thereby completing the process of drafting the text of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. Thus, by harmonizing the most problematic provisions of the draft convention, the parties managed to find a mutually acceptable solution for the key issue of the Caspian negotiating process. As a result, once the editorial process, as well as the translation into the national languages of the signatories, is completed, the document will lie on the negotiating table on the upcoming Caspian Summit in Astana.
The promising results of the consultations actually exclude the possibility of further postponement of the Fifth Caspian Summit, the final decision on the timeframe of which will be made by the leadership of Kazakhstan (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, 2017). Despite the fact that the draft text of the convention is not yet approved at the highest level, the optimistic tone of Lavrov’s statement leaves no doubt that the meeting of the heads of the Caspian states would be held in the capital of Kazakhstan in 2018.
In this regard, the willingness of the parties to further broaden the new Caspian five-party legal base for ensuring economic development and military cooperation in the region is also should be perceived as a positive development. Since 2010, it has become the practice for the presidents of the littoral states to sign the five-party documents during the Caspian Summits, which form the so-called new sectoral legal background for the current legal regime in the Caspian Sea. To date, agreements aimed at ensuring security, rational use of marine biological resources, cooperation in the fields of hydrometeorology and emergency prevention in the Caspian region have already been signed and ratified. The Astana Summit could result in further enlargement of the five-party agreements list. In fact, the parties could ink both the Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents in the Caspian Sea, which would improve the interaction between defense ministries of the Caspian Five, well as the protocols on cooperation between the border guard services, anti-drug agencies, and other law enforcement bodies, that would create conditions for effective struggle against poaching, terrorism, organized crime, and illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, 2017).
Moreover, under the most optimistic scenario, ahead of the Fifth Caspian Summit the parties could sign the Protocol on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, which will become the fourth protocol to the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, also known as the Tehran Convention. Since the provisions of this protocol will make it possible to explain the competence of the littoral states in dealing with the issues of the construction of the pipeline along the Caspian seabed, the importance of inking this document for shaping the future architecture of pipelines in the region could not be overestimated. Moreover, it is also possible that agreements for cooperation between the Caspian states in trade, economic and transport sectors developed by the Turkmen side could supplement the list of the sectoral five-party agreements. Thus, taking all these factors into account suggests that the 2018 Astana Summit has the potential to become the most successful meeting of the heads of the Caspian states. There is no doubt that adopting a comprehensive legal regime for the Caspian Sea will have a positive impact on the investment attractiveness of the region opening new perspectives for the realization of its economic potential.
However, it must be recognized that despite the progress achieved by the foreign ministers of the Caspian Five, the general nature of the Lavrov’s statement does not allow for a full assessment of the situation on the content and substance of the reached agreements that should be reflected in the draft convention. Initially, the convention was designed as a document aimed to establish the fundamental principles of joint activities of the parties in the region. Thus, it was the provisions of the convention that had to address the issue of division of the Caspian seabed into sovereign national sectors. However, the process of delimitation of the Caspian Sea has been hampered by a lack of understanding and coherence between the countries bordering the South Caspian Sea. This situation has led to the signing of bilateral and trilateral agreements on the division of the northern part of the Caspian Sea, which, for obvious reasons, could only serve as a temporary solution to delimitation issue. This means that it is within the Caspian Convention that final delimitation agreement must be reached to reduce the tension between the littoral states. In this context, incorporation of the framework delimitation principles achieved between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia in the draft convention is a very important element for upholding the legitimacy of previously signed documents. According to Deputy Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan, Khalaf Khalafov, who is also a member of the Special Working Group (SWG) on the Caspian legal status at the level of the deputy ministers of foreign affairs of the Caspian States, the parties reached an agreement on this issue and the existing maritime boundary delimitation agreements will not be revised (Sputnik, 2017). However, it remains unclear what particular durable solutions should be undertaken in order to agree on the delimitation of the southern part of the Caspian Sea.
The fact is that a statement from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif indicated that Tehran has neither issued any official position nor stated its commitment to fulfilling delimitation under the modified median line method affirming that the principled position of Iran in determining the maritime boundaries in the Caspian Sea is based on the principles of mutual respect, fairness and equality between the parties (Mehr News Agency, 2017). Moreover, in his speech, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan Elmar Mammadyarov noted that the parties should demonstrate flexibility in the subject and recall the relevant provisions of international law in order to achieve a consensus on most problematic issues before the Fifth Caspian Summit (AzerTag, 2017). Such cautious statements show indirectly that there are still a number of unresolved issues between the parties. Under these circumstances, it is possible that the principles of the Caspian Sea delimitation will not explicitly be addressed in the draft convention, leaving room for further three-party consultations between Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan. In fact, Khalafov confirmed that Azerbaijan would develop the delimitation agreements with Iran and Turkmenistan similar to the existing agreements with Kazakhstan and Russia. Thus, in this situation, the draft convention will not be able to respond fully to the expectations of the littoral states on the issue regarding the legal regime of the Caspian Sea.
Undoubtedly, the removal of key provisions on the Caspian Sea division of the text for a final document will somewhat reduce its significance, but it is quite obvious that even in this type of drafting the convention could have a favorable impact on regional development by strengthening mutual trust and widening the field for multilateral cooperation. Without denying the importance of signing such a fundamental document as the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, account should be taken of the fact that there will be issues and aspects of development that are not fully addressed in the final document. In this context, it remains important to maintain a balance between the number of signed regional agreements and their quality.
AzerTag. (2017). Azerbaijan uveren v reshenii vsekh voprosov po pravovomu statusy Kaspiya v dukhe vzaimovigodnogo partnerstva. Retrieved from https://azertag.az/ru/xeber/Elmar_Mamedyarov_Azerbaidzhan_uveren_v_reshe… Accessed on: 11.12.2017
Mehr News Agency. (2017). FM Zarif calls for visa waiver among 5 Caspian Sea states. Retrieved from https://en.mehrnews.com/news/129992/FM-Zarif-calls-for-visa-waiver-among…Accessed on: 15.12.2017
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan . (2017). Ministry inostrannyh del prikaspijskih gosudarstv soglasovali proekt konvencii o pravovom statuse Kaspijskogo moray. Retrieved from http://mfa.gov.kz/ru/content-view/ministry-inostrannyh-del-prikaspijskih… Accessed on: 06.12.2017
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. (2017). Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement at a news conference following the Meeting of the Caspian Littoral States’ Foreign Ministers. Retrieved from http://www.mid.ru/press_service/minister_speeches/-/asset_publisher/7OvQ… Accessed on: 06.12.2017
Sputnik. (2017). Khalaf Khalafov – o peregovorakh po statusy Kasiya. Retrieved from https://ru.sputnik.az/azerbaijan/20171206/413072798/rossija-azerbajdzhan… Accessed on: 08.12.2017