Given the growing importance of the Caspian Sea in recent times, the summits of the Caspian basin states, along with the EAEU and the SCO, are becoming essential platforms for strengthening ties within Eurasia. Whereas major oil and gas fields previously generated the bulk of interest in such forums, now it is time for the integrated development of these locations. First and foremost, the focus is on forming a legal zone of joint security, creating transport lines that would allow trade between the states of the Caspian region to reach a new level, and opening up transit routes.
These new tasks were at the center of discussion at the sixth summit of the Caspian Five heads of state in Ashgabat on June 29. The leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia met to discuss economic and environmental initiatives in the region, and reaffirmed their commitment to existing security arrangements.
The summit was very active in discussing the parties’ proposals for economic cooperation and supranational transport and logistics projects. The parties voiced their own initiatives and approaches to unlock the logistical potential of the Caspian Sea and the coastal states. First of all, it was about building the International Transport Corridor (ITC) North-South, paving the way from St Petersburg to Mumbai. Attention was drawn to the need to remove certain barriers as soon as possible, in particular due to the lack of a single operator and appropriate freight pricing, as well as the unresolved ITC infrastructural challenges. Russia has shared information in this context about the construction of the logistics infrastructure in the Astrakhan region, the equipping of ports and the creation of opportunities for container and other transport by sea. Iran and Azerbaijan are developing railways, which raises hopes of the ITC becoming one of the pillars of a transport framework linking Eurasia and a key to the welfare of the mainland.
It was stated that the Caspian Sea area and the ITC North-South are not only of interest to its existing participants. The ITC is receiving increased attention from China in the context of the promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative. Trade between the PRC and European and other Eurasian countries is growing steadily. Thus, according to current forecasts, trade between the EU and China alone will reach $1 trillion in the near future.
It was noted, however, that the Western economic sanctions pose tangible risks to increasing trade and economic cooperation between the parties, since no clarity has been provided by European countries on the removal of transit restrictions. Meanwhile, it is clear to all that Russia cannot be excluded from world trade, and in this context the diversification of the North-South and East-West corridors is of particular relevance.
In this context, Russia called on its partners to unite in the face of common challenges, respecting the culture and traditions of each country without interfering in internal affairs. It is therefore not surprising that the Caspian Five heads of state summit focused on projects that could be mutually beneficial and useful. Apart from the ITC, such joint projects in the Caspian Sea range from energy, transport and tourism to social projects, security, education, culture and sports. For example, summit participants expressed hope for the development of tourism, and certain plans for this are linked to the appearance in 2023 of the large cruise ship Peter the Great, which Russia is now building. There was also interest in the cultural agenda at the forum, in particular the proposal by the Russian President to hold a carpet weaving festival, bringing together masterpieces that countries are proud of. The Russian Union of Cinematographers has proposed holding a joint film forum.
The Russian President stressed that the Caspian Five have great opportunities for cooperation in the energy sector and are already implementing agreements on the joint exploitation of oil and gas fields located in the Caspian Sea. “This makes it possible to use the natural wealth of the Caspian Sea reasonably and effectively, respecting the interests of the parties, both in traditional and in innovative, alternative energy sectors,” Vladimir Putin stressed.
It should be underlined that although the Caspian Sea is considered a sea, geographically it is still a closed water basin, i.e. a lake with a special legal regime, different from the one for open water basins and enshrined in the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. To better preserve the fragile marine ecosystem, the Russian side proposed completing the process of establishing an appropriate legal framework, based on the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, the so-called 2003 Tehran Convention. It was therefore suggested to think about convening a conference of the parties to the convention in the near future.
Speaking at the summit, Iran’s President described the Caspian Sea as a “water area of cooperation” whose potential is intended to serve the nearly 300 million people living in all five states of the region. In this regard, he stressed the particular importance of cooperation among all littoral states, above all in view of the realities of current world politics and the state of international relations. According to him, this interaction and cooperation should ultimately lead not only to economic growth and increase in the general well-being of all the nations of the region, but also to the strengthening of peace and regional stability, and help resolve all contradictions and problems exclusively by the efforts of the Caspian Five states.
Given the importance of the security issues and legal status of the Caspian Sea, the discussion on this agenda logically continued with the strengthening of cooperation in the military sphere. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave particular importance to this discussion, mentioning that all the leaders of the Caspian basin states agreed to continue and accelerate work on an agreement that would envisage the implementation of confidence-building and military cooperation measures in the Caspian Sea. All the foreign ministers of the basin states reaffirmed, Lavrov said, the principles of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea as a “water area of common good”, and in this connection the parties consolidated the provisions of the agreements in this sphere in the final communiqué. In particular, in the final communiqué of the sixth Caspian Summit, the presidents of the Caspian Five countries outlined the principles that will guide the activities of the region’s states, including the principle of non-presence of armed forces of non-coastal countries in the Caspian Sea, non-provision of territory to other countries for aggression and other military actions against any of the littoral states. The final document states that “the Presidents, while reaffirming their commitment to the principles and norms of the United Nations Charter and international law, taking into account the growing role of the Caspian Sea region in the world, expressed the willingness of the Caspian states to maintain regional security and stability, strengthen mutually beneficial economic cooperation, ensure environmental security and develop cultural, humanitarian, scientific and other relations.”
As the results of the sixth summit of the Caspian basin states show, partnership in Eurasian integration associations is based on equality and the rule of principles approved by all parties, which is a significant difference from the Western model of interaction, where only one party makes the rules.
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.