By Hasan Selim Ozertem
In June, the dispute between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan suddenly became intense despite the positive developments in the recent years between these two countries. The attempt to investigate the oil fields of Turkmenistan’s Serdar and Azerbaijan’s Kepez by a seismic-sweeping vessel that belongs to Turkmenistan was reciprocated by the coast guards of Azerbaijan, which caused rise of tension in the Caspian. This latest development in the Caspian Sea region not only raised discussions about its status, but also brought question marks regarding the cooperation between the two countries. Therefore, this situation points to a problem through which the Caspian Sea region’s geopolitical importance should be considered.
The Status of the Caspian Sea and Unresolvable Conflicts
The Caspian Sea is an economic resource for the region in terms of tourism, fishing, transportation and energy. The caviar and petrol that is produced in the Caspian is exported to the rest of the world. In addition, this inland sea is an important travel route and means of transportation between the Middle East and Asia, especially between Iran and countries north of it. This critical region consisting of five coastal neighbors is a conflict area rather than one of integration. In other words, the Caspian region’s uncertain status is a critical opportunity for the implementation of any strategy which aims to block the entrance of new actors. On the other hand, this uncertainty is a barrier to energy projects that can be implemented in the region.
Russia solves the problematic issues related to its self-interest through micro-management, instead of by providing a comprehensive solution to the dispute. In other words, acting easily in the northern Caspian in terms of energy and fishing thanks to agreements with Astana and Baku, Moscow opposes bilateral agreements that may exclude Russia. On the other hand, although the littoral states gathering in the Caspian Summit leave each and every meeting with good intentions for the future. Yet, mainly the influence of primarily Russia and secondarily Iran in these summits is notable. When the current developments are considered, the issues took shape according to these two states’ preferences in terms of law and regulations.
After the Turkmenchay Agreement signed in 1828, a division of power occurred between the Russian Empire and Iran in the region, and then the Soviet Union took the Russian Empire’s place. Caspian geopolitics were strongly influenced by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but again became ambiguous after its breakdown in 1991. Baku, Astana and Ashgabat are inherently parties to the current politics that Moscow and Tehran should be legally excluded from.
In the 2000s, a group including Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan took up the position that the Caspian question should be settled by considering the Caspian Sea a “sea.” Conversely, Iran and Turkmenistan claimed that Caspian Sea should be considered a lake and that the littoral states should each respectfully have exclusive rights to twenty percent of the Caspian.
As a matter of fact, it may be claimed that the main objective of the countries excluding Russia is to maximize their shares of the Caspian. Iran aims to widen its claim to the northern coast from the southern coast, which promises little hope in terms of oil and natural gas resources. Azerbaijan on one hand aims to obtain the maximum benefit from the long coastline that it owns. Russia on the other hand seems satisfied with the current status, which decreases maneuvering space of the West, even though it is not very effective in the Caucasus.
The Timing and New Projects
Both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan claiming exclusive rights in the Serdar-Kepez field – in which 150 million barrels of oil is estimated to be present – seems to be the deadlock of the issue. Azerbaijan, by politically responding in a harsh manner to Turkmenistan which endeavors to specify its own field, appears not to have waived its rights to this field. However, in the current situation, the timing of the rise of tension is remarkable.
When the second half of the 2000s is considered, Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan relations became tense, mostly due to the subject of sovereignty over energy fields. However, it may be asserted that after Saparmurat Niyazov, the relations were renewed after Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s visit to Baku in 2008, and softened with the reciprocal opening of embassies. In time, following these developments and parties agreeing and working on new concrete projects for the construction of a new pipeline under the Caspian Sea or the joint operation of the disputed oil field, tension suddenly rose. This situation caused increase of doubts over some of these projects, and primarily over Nabucco.
In her statements, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported the project of a pipeline under the Caspian Sea being constructed between the two countries during her visit to the Caucasus. This statement caused an increase in hopes for U.S. political support regarding the Nabucco consortium providing natural gas. Furthermore, the U.S. appointed Richard Morningstar as Ambassador to Baku, who had experience in energy issues and the Eurasia geography; this appointment reinforced the signals that Washington was determined to revise its strategy on that region. Yet soon after these developments, the latest episode caused the relations between Ashgabat and Baku to become tense again. Their improvement before the application of these projects is necessary.
The Dynamics Behind the Dispute
In an assessment regarding the rise of tension in June, the authorities of Azerbaijan point to Russia, while Russian website Regnum points to Iran as having most influenced Turkmenistan’s step. As a matter of fact, Russia’s political effect on Turkmenistan is far beyond that of Iran’s. Moscow has strong dominance over Ashgabat as a result of instruments, historical dynamics and geographical reasons. However, Iran’s increasing interest towards the region, reinforce these doubts. Eurasia analyst Josh Kucera, referring to Alex Jackson, indicates Iran having discovered ten billion barrels of oil reserves in a Caspian area that belongs to Azerbaijan. In fact, Tehran as having constraints in international level, due to social movements in the Arab world and its nuclear programme, might use this kind of speculations related with oil discovery to divert attentions away from Iran.
In conclusion, the good relations between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan that developed after Niyazov are going to follow a different path after this latest development. The development occurred after the ratification of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) between Turkey and Azerbaijan, and in terms of timing shows how fragile the relations are in the region, not only politically but also economically. There is ongoing dispute over the status of the Caspian. Nevertheless, considering the Chinese success in the region if the political will becomes sufficiently strong, essential developments are likely to occur in the region. The main issue here is who is going to show this will in a sustainable and appropriate manner.
Hasan Selim Ozertem
USAK Center for Energy Security Studies
This analysis was published first in Analist, July 2011. Translated from Turkish by Gizem Erbas and edited by Kerim Rached.