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THE LEGAL STATUS OF THE CASPIAN SEA: IMPLICATIONS ON CASPIAN RESOURCES DEVELOPMENT AND TRANSPORT

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by Sohbet Karbuz:

The Caspian Sea, the largest landlocked body of salty water in the world, is surrounded by five “Caspian States”: Russia in the north; Iran in the south; Azerbaijan in the west, and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in the east. Caspian Sea’s location at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East has kept the region’s strategic importance to international geopolitics.

Before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Soviet-Iran treaties governed the exploitation of the Caspian Sea, but since then a legislative black hole in governance and delimitation has been created. All littoral states agree that a multilateral treaty is the ideal way to resolve their dispute over the division of the sea bottom and the delimitation of surface waters.

For more than two decades, the Caspian littoral states have been working on resolving the Caspian problem in numerous meetings at various levels including the summit conferences of the heads of states and governments. However, despite over 40 ad hoc working group meetings at the level of deputy foreign ministers and four Summits[1] of Caspian Sea Heads of State, they have been unable to find a solution that would satisfy all.[2]

There are great difficulties in resolving this issue since even international laws fail to provide an adequate framework. All the treaties in the past relate to navigation and, to a lesser extent, fishing rights, but not to seabed mining. Navigation and fishing rights should not be confused with the right of using the mineral resources. With mineral resources, the seabed is taken to consideration and not the water layer. Failed consensus due to diverse motives and interests paved the way for unilateral actions, bilateral and trilateral agreements,[3] and consequent disputes.

The legal headache of dividing up the sea continues to pose a serious obstacle to the development of several fields and blocked many projects including trans-Caspian oil and gas pipelines. After all, how the Caspian seabed is divided among the littoral states will determine which hydrocarbon fields will fall into whose sector.

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