The Issue of the Legal Regime of the Caspian Sea

Saturday, 11 May 2013 11:05
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by Gregorio Baggiani
EPOS Insights


Two decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, fundamental issues regarding the Caspian Sea remain unresolved. Nevertheless, more progress has been made behind the scenes than what appears evident in public pronouncements. Initially, Russia’s preferred option had been the joint utilization of the Caspian Sea- encompassing both the seabed and the surface waters - in a condominium arrangement. However, faced with strong resistance by its Caspian neighbors, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, Russia has given in some elements of its ideal solution to the long- standing and unresolved issue of the overall legal regime of the Caspian Sea, and has accepted bilateral divisions of the seabed. After more than a decade of disputes and arguments, the only joint expression by the five Caspian states has then been that the legal regime of the Caspian Sea should be decided by all these states through a multilateral agreement.

As already mentioned, the only progress towards a legal regime change of the Caspian Sea has been achieved through a series (although not comprehensive) of bilateral agreements in the Northern part of the Caspian Sea. Russia has then, notwithstanding this necessary compromise with the above mentioned states, succeeded in retaining its surface navigation rights on the entire surface of the Caspian Sea.

Thus, in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, a de facto legal regime has been established by the division of the seabed along a modified median line, with joint utilizations of the surface waters for navigation, included military navigation, and fishery. However, it is still not clear whether such an arrangement could also realistically be extended to the Southern part of the Caspian Sea. This would essentially depend upon the willingness of Turkmenistan and Iran to come to an agreement or at least to a viable compromise.

The current dual system in the Caspian Sea is being implemented without, up to now, the occurrence of major rows among the riparian states. This, however, remains a temporary solution. Tensions among, on one hand, the supporters of a division on an equality share principle, and, on the other, the supporters of a division along a modified median line, could soon or later lead to a serious military or political confrontation, should one party refuse to give in to the other one, provoking thus an ensuing regional instability crisis which might severely put at risk European and US energy security.

The stakes involved in the legal regime change of the Caspian Sea are undoubtedly very high, but also the need of the riparian states to develop their own energy resources without legal obstruction by the other states might play a decisive role in the reach of a settlement of the outstanding legal dispute because, as it is well known, foreign investment needs security and legal certainty.

The stakes involved in the legal regime change of the Caspian Sea are thus decisive for the future regional set-up, and they extend also well beyond the region, with consequences of paramount geopolitical relevance for the balance of power in the Eurasian continent. Especially, the containment of Russia, and in perspective, of China, plays a decisive role in this geopolitical context. Energy dependence is not only an economic factor leading to a price reduction of oil and gas for European consumers, but might also represent a serious political threat to the independence of the European continent and at the same time to the independence of some Caspian states from the potential blackmail by Russian energy leverage.

This outstanding energy commercialization issue which has serious political implications for the whole Eurasian continent could also find a viable solution when Russia expectedly enters WTO next year as WTO commercial regulations are legally binding for participating states. The OSCE could also prove a precious tool to solve some burning regional political issues which are, directly or indirectly, linked to the Caspian energy issues.


This is an abstract of a Research Paper realized by Gregorio Baggiani you can find clicking here


Gregorio Baggiani is a contributor of "Il Mulino" - online edition- since 2009; scientific collaborator of the Professorship  of History of International  and Eastern Europe Relations at the University of "Roma Tre"; OSCE electoral observer for the Italian Foreign Office

Last modified on Sunday, 12 May 2013 16:03
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