Historic Caspian Sea convention caps decades of negotiation

Followers of international politics will know the complex challenges of negotiating to resolve issues affecting several countries, where each side is understandably looking to protect its national interest. Yet on Aug. 12,  the world witnessed a major diplomatic breakthrough, when the leaders of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and Turkmenistan signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in the Kazakh city of Aktau.

The significance of this agreement should not be underestimated. It follows more than two decades of discussions, with negotiations on the international legal status of the Caspian Sea taking place regularly since 1996. More than 50 working group meetings took place to prepare for the convention. After numerous discussions and four previous summits at the heads of state level, the convention has been finally agreed upon.

This is most welcome news. It should be remembered that prior to this landmark agreement, the treaties on the Caspian’s legal status dated back to 1921 and 1940. The lack of a new agreement on how to divide up the world’s largest enclosed body of water caused occasional disputes in the region and prevented an enhancement of trade and economic cooperation between the five states bordering the sea.

This highlights just how important it was to reach a new agreement. The five sides have now agreed to establish a special legal status for the Caspian, which means the surface water will be in common usage, while the seabed will be divided up. As Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev stated after the summit, “We have established 15-mile-wide territorial waters whose borders become state borders. Adjacent to the territorial waters are 10 miles of fishing water where each state has exclusive fishing rights.”

Of course, the negotiations do not stop here. The seabed boundaries are yet to be negotiated. Furthermore, President of Iran Hassan Rouhani stressed that further talks are needed to clarify obligations to the responsibilities of the littoral states for guaranteeing the environmental safety of the Caspian Sea.

The success of the summit should not be underestimated. The agreement reached will also contribute substantially to the development of regional cooperation in the areas of ecology, energy, transport and trade, as well as strengthen the security of the Caspian region. President Nazarbayev summarised the situation, by proclaiming: “Today, after 25 years, we can say we have made the Caspian Sea a place of cooperation in regards to its waters, soil, and aerospace.”

This is undoubtedly positive news for the people and economy of Kazakhstan. As the country’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov noted, “The adoption of the convention grants transnational companies the right to conduct activities in the Caspian Sea which will boost transit projects and attract logistics companies and new investments in the region.”

It is well known that Kazakhstan is already playing a key role in promoting trade and transit, especially as part of the New Silk Road project. The agreement on the Caspian Sea will provide further opportunities for Kazakhstan to contribute to the development of trade in the region and beyond, which will bring with it economic benefits.

The agreement was also most needed from an ecological perspective, where we have a duty to work together to protect the natural environment. Hundreds of animal and plant species live in the Caspian Sea, including many that are unique to the region. Unfortunately, pollution has had a negative effect on the ecology of the Caspian, especially on the famous sturgeon. The deal between the littoral states now means that the Caspian will be better protected from ecological disasters and potential incidents such as oil spills.

Kazakhstan should be proud to have hosted and participated in this historic event. The five-sided agreement has demonstrated that diplomacy remains the main vehicle to resolving disputes, irrespective of their complexities. Hopefully this meeting will act as motivation and give impetus to other world leaders to use diplomacy as the most effective means of resolving other outstanding global issues.