Caspian Sea…is the world’s largest body of inland water—or what some would call a rather salty lake. The confusion has fuelled disputes over its legal status for nearly 30 years, as lakes and seas fall under different international legal regimes.
The Caspian sits at a strategic spot between Europe and Asia, and contains lucrative stores of oil, gas and fish, including the caviar-producing sturgeon. The Soviet Union and Iran had a clearly defined maritime border but, after the Soviet collapse, the appearance of independent Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan muddied the waters.
On August 12th the five littoral countries at last signed an agreement the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. The Caspian, says a Russian official, is to be treated as neither sea nor lake, but instead subject to a “special legal status”. While leaving some of the thorniest issues unresolved, the pact clarifies the maritime borders, enabling new oil, gas and pipeline projects to go ahead.
All five countries are to have 15 mile-wide territorial waters extending from their shores and another ten miles of exclusive fishing rights. The rest of the surface water will be common territory, but non-signatory states (e.g., the United States) may not deploy armed forces there. For Russia, this helps preserve its military dominance by retaining freedom of movement for its warships. (Russia has used the Caspian to launch missiles into Syria.)
The seabed and its resources, meanwhile, will be divided separately between the signatories. Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan already have agreements that split up the northern Caspian. Carving up the rest of the seabed will require further negotiations. The agreement also allows pipelines to be constructed with the consent only of the countries whose sectors they pass through. That might unblock a much-discussed Trans-Caspian Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan which Russia has long opposed.
Exceprts from Big Lake Small Sea: Russia’s Neighborhood, Economist, Aug. 18, 2018, at 44