Though the Caspian is called a sea, it is a lake. The Caspian Sea is the largest lake on the Earth. Its area is 371,000 square km. The volume is 78,200 cubic km. The pre-Caspian Sea are Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran.
Our topic is about the status of the Caspian Sea and why these five littoral countries can not share it between each other.
Let`s date back to the 18th century, when the status of the Caspian Sea was included in international treaties. During the first quarter of the 18th century the territory of the Russian empire included the areas, which are currently Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Therefore, the Russian dominance in the basin was very natural. Throughout the 18-19th centuries the status of the Caspian Sea was regularized due to the bilateral treaties between Russia and Persia (Iran). According to the Russian-Persian treaty concluded in 1828, Russia gained an exclusive right to maintain a navy in the Caspian Sea. However, both of the countries might use the Caspian Sea for transportation and its resources.
In the second part of the 19th century the modern oil industry was established in Baku, then part of the Russian empire. The oil boom attracted even foreign companies and since then the Caspian Sea has been recognized as one of the important oil areas. It made defining the status of the Caspian Sea necessary. The interstate commission determined the Astara-Hasanguly line as the border between the two countries. In the 20th century the Russian empire was substituted by the Soviet Union which covered almost most of the territories of its predecessor. Two treaties signed by the Soviet Union and Iran in 1935 and 1940 emphasized that the Caspian Sea was divided between the above mentioned states. According to a treaty signed between Iran (Persia) and the Soviet Union, the Caspian Sea is technically a lake and it is to be divided into two sectors (Persian and Russian), but the resources (then mainly fish) would be commonly shared. The line between the two sectors was to be seen as an international border in a common lake, like Lake Albert.
However, in 1970 it was decided to divide the Caspian Sea also into subsectors of Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, constituent republics of the Soviet Union. The division was implemented on the basis of internationally accepted median line.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new order required new regulations. At first Russia and Iran announced that they would continue to adhere to the old treaty (but they don’t have a common border any more, so this is practically impossible).
Negotiations related to the demarcation of the Caspian Sea have been going on for nearly a decade now among the littoral states bordering the Caspian – Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The status of the Caspian Sea is the key problem. There are three major issues regulated by the Caspian Sea status:
1) access to mineral resources (oil and natural gas),
2) access for fishing,
3) access to international waters (through Russia’s Volga river and the canals connecting it to the Black Sea and Baltic Sea).
Access to the Volga River is particularly important for the landlocked states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This issue is of course sensitive to Russia, because this potential traffic will move through its territory (albeit onto the inland waterways). If a body of water is labeled as Sea then there would be some precedents and international treaties obliging the granting of access permits to foreign vessels. If a body of water is labeled merely as lake then there are no such obligations. Environmental issues are also somewhat connected to the status and borders issue.
Therefore, one of the main issues the pre-Caspian Sea argue over is to accept it as a sea or a lake. Our basic geographic knowledge lets us conclude that the Caspian Sea is a lake because it has no connection with the world ocean.
There are two positions or points of view on the division of the Caspian Sea into: a) national sectors; b) equal sectors.
If taking into account that the Caspian basin is a sea, then internationally recognized maritime laws and regulations must apply. Historically, the Caspian was called a sea, due to its big size or other features of sea. Some reliable sources like Britannica prefer to call it a sea, because in its geological past the Caspian Sea was connected to the world ocean. However, the UN convention on sea calls the basins that are connected to the world ocean sea. Geographically and legally the Caspian Sea is not a sea. However, it may be granted the status of sea if all five littoral countries agree on this.
If the Caspian Sea is legally granted the status of sea, then the UN Conventions on the Continental shelf (1958) and on the Law of Sea will be applied to the Caspian Sea. That would mean
Each littoral state has sovereign rights within the basin up to 12 nM and the exclusive economic zone (between 12 nm and 200 nM). But the maximal width of the Caspian Sea is less than 200 nM, the littoral countries must designate the borders the exclusive economic zones based on medial line.
According to the UN Convention, the territorial waters, the airspace over them, the seabed belong to the sovereignty of the littoral country.
The space beyond the territorial waters is called “open sea”, which means it is open for all the nations, and no country can claim its sovereignty over it. Therefore, even the countries which are not littoral can freely use the so-called open sea area of the Caspian Sea.
If the Caspian is a lake, then it would be a boundary lake. The basin must be divided on the basis of the median line then. However, a merchant ship of any country can sail throughout the lake without restrictions.
The lake has juridically no economic zones, shelves or territorial waters. The lake (or its part) must be under sovereignty of littoral countries.
In general, there are no internationally adopted rules for division lakes, while boundary lakes have been divided by littoral countries themselves. EG: Lake Chad (Cameroon-Chad-Nigeria-Niger), Victoria (Kenya-Uganda-Tanzania). More often, lakes are divided by countries, but there is no restriction for using its waters (for shipping).
As a citizen of Azerbaijan, I`d like to start with the position Azerbaijan maintains. Azerbaijan proposes that the Caspian Sea must be divided into national sectors and justifies its position:
The Caspian Sea is an international boundary lake.
The Caspian Sea must be divided into national sectors based on the “median line” principles.
Iran and Turkmenistan, which oppose the position of Azerbaijan have their counter-arguments:
The Caspian Sea is an enclosed body of water and the common wealth of the pre-Caspian countries.
The Caspian Sea must be divided into equal parts between the pre-Caspian countries (i.e. each country must have 20% of the lake/sea).
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan insisted that the sectors should be based on the median line, thus giving each state a share proportional to its Caspian coastline length. Also the sectors would form part of the sovereign territory of the particular state (thus making them international borders and also allowing each state to deal with all resources within its sector as it wishes unilaterally).
Iran insisted that the sectors should be such that each state gets a 1/5th share of the whole Caspian Sea. This was advantageous to Iran, because it has a proportionally smaller coastline.
Russia proposed a somewhat compromising solution: the seabed (and thus mineral resources) to be divided along sectoral lines (along the two above-described variants), the surface (and thus fishing rights) to be shared between all states (with the following variations: the whole surface to be commonly shared; each state to receive an exclusive zone and one single common zone in the center to be shared. The second variant is deemed not practical, because of the small size of the whole sea).
Russia and Kazakhstan signed a treaty, according to which, they divide the northern part of the Caspian Sea between them into two sectors along the median line. Each sector is an exclusive zone of its state. Thus all resources, seabed and surface are exclusive to the particular state. Russia and Azerbaijan signed a similar treaty about their common border. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan signed a similar treaty about their common border.
Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have agreed to a solution about their sectors. There are no problems between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, but the latter is not actively participating, so there is no agreement either. Azerbaijan is at odds with Iran over some oil fields that the both states claim. There have been occasions where Iranian patrol boats have opened fire at vessels sent by Azerbaijan for exploration into the disputed region. There are similar tensions between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan (the latter claims that the former has pumped more oil than agreed from a field, recognized by both parties as shared). Less acute are the issues between Turkmenistan and Iran. Regardless, the southern part of the sea remains disputed.
Iran doesn’t recognize the bilateral agreements between the other littoral states. Iran continues to insist on a single multilateral agreement between all five littoral states (as the only way to achieve 1/5-th share).
The position of Turkmenistan is unclear.
After Russia adopted the median line sectoral division and the three treaties already signed between some littoral states this is looking like the realistic method for regulating the Caspian borders. The Russian sector is fully defined. The Kazakhstan sector is not fully defined, but is not disputed either. Azerbaijan’s, Turkmenistan’s and Iran’s sectors are not fully defined. It is not clear if the issue of Volga-access to vessels from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan is covered by their agreements with Russia and also what the conditions are for Volga-access for vessels from Turkmenistan and Iran.
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