The legal status of the Caspian Sea


In august 2018, the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea was signed between 5 littoral states, more precisely, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. Conclusion of this agreement is an achievement as well as the evidence of progress in the negotiation process which persists from 1991.

Why the determination of the legal status of Caspian Sea has become so important? The response is very simple –  its seabed is rich with oil and gas reserves, as well as with fish species, like sturgeon, pike, perche, etc. In fact, sturgeon caviar, similar to white truffles and saffron, is among the most expensive food products in the world. This wealth means huge investment projects and financial prosperity for each coastal country. The consensus on the legal status of the Caspian sea is pivotal for the regional security as well.

At the times, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), so there were only 2 littoral states, namely USSR and Iran. For a long time, the legal status of the sea was regulated by bilateral agreements between them. Until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Caspian sea was considered as a lake and the border between Iran and USSR was determined precisely. After the collapse of USSR, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan declared their independence and consequently became coastal states gaining territorial claims over the Caspian sea.  Emergence of new states complicated the issues and the states did not manage to agree on the status of the Caspian sea.

From the legal point of view, treatment of the Caspian as a lake or sea changes everything, in other words, each has a different legal consequence. Considering the Caspian sea as a “sea” means that it should be regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which Turkmenistan and Iran are not party. Defining Caspian sea as a “lake” requires dividing it into equal parties between the littoral states.

While Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia supported the determination of the Caspian sea as “sea’, Iran follows the idea of dividing the sea into 5 equal parts, each country being able to control 20%. The reason is that, otherwise, the coastline of Iran would cover 13% of the sea. Disagreement on the status has caused so far the failure of some energy projects creating tension between the states.

In 1996, a special working group of Deputy Foreign Ministers of 5 littoral states was established in order to draw up a convention. It took 22 years to come to a conclusion. Finally, in 2018, during the 5th Caspian Summit at Aktau, Kazakhstan, 5 states achieved the conclusion of the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea.

The Convention consists of 24 articles which are based on the principles and norms of the Charter of the United Nations and international law. The agreement set out the principles such as non-use of force, mutual respect, the protection of biological resources, liability of polluting state etc. As a matter of fact, Caspian sea is defined by the Convention neither as a lake nor as a sea. Parties only partially managed to come to a consensus.  The main success of the Convention is that the countries agreed on 25 nautical miles of territorial waters and 15 nautical miles of fishing zone for each. The rest space of the sea is decided to be common.

Furthermore, the construction of pipelines which is mentioned in the article 14 is subject to the approval of the states through the seabed of which the pipeline will pass. The uncertainty on the construction of pipelines was an obstacle in the realization of Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) project. This is the gas pipeline project which is thought to enable Turkmenistan to transport gas to the European market via the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC). Implementation of the project, which is imprecise for now, means the emergence of a new competitor for Russia in the European market. For your information, Southern Gas Corridor is the gas pipeline project aiming to improve EU’s energy security, by means of which Azerbaijan will transport gas to Europe. It is planned to start the gas flow in October 2020.

Another major issue that is specified in the Convention is the non-presence of armed forces not belonging to the littoral statesin the Caspian Sea. It is vital for ensuring security and stability in the region.

It seems that the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea has partially eliminated uncertainty and tension between the countries. On the other hand, there are still issues which were not resolved. For example, the delineation of the seabed which is a critical issue for the exploitation of natural resources is not defined. The Convention mentions that it is subject to the agreements between the states with adjacent and opposite coasts. In addition, Article 21 which focuses on the dispute resolution is relatively general and again leave the resolution of any dispute at the disposal of parties.

Despite of the fact that the Convention does not bring solutions to all the issues related to the Caspian sea, it is an important step in the development of negotiation process. The convention encourages the parties to cooperate in the peaceful conditions, “taking into account good-neighbourliness and mutual understanding” as it is specified in it.


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