Russia says 'nyet' to military in
the Caspian By Sergei Blagov
MOSCOW - Russia, which
has significant economic interests in the oil-and-gas-rich Caspian
region, is warning against any military buildup in
the area, particularly by the United States.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made that
clear during a two-day meeting last week of his
counterparts from the other four countries that
border the Caspian Sea - Iran, Azerbaijan,
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
was upset by what he called "efforts by some
nations from outside the region to infiltrate the
Caspian politically and militarily with
ill-defined goals ... It is easy to invite foreign
troops, but it can be difficult to make them
withdraw," he said.
Lavrov is believed to
have been targeting the US, which is thought to be
trying to establish a base in Azerbaijan while
country with anoverhaul
of its navy. But Azerbaijani
Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov
told a news conference in Moscow that a foreign
military presence in the Caspian region "cannot
be considered in isolation from other problems".
However, he insisted that the sovereign rights of
the coastal countries be respected.
Lavrov said Russia was not
calling for withdrawal of all military forces from
the region. "Demilitarization of the Caspian does
not correspond to the realities of today," he
said, adding that such a goal could entail
"disarmament of the Caspian states, which now face
new threats". Still, he warned against "any
pretexts for conflicts in the region".
Lavrov said he hoped drafting a
convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea could
be completed "in the very near future".
The foreign ministers agreed to hold the next
round of talks in Turkmen capital Ashgabat, but
provided no date.
"Problems of the
sea-bed delimitation in the southern sector, rules of
military activities and transit as well as
conditions for sub-sea pipelines still remain
unresolved," Lavrov said.
In wake of
the failed Caspian Sea summit in April 2002,
Moscow pushed for a series of bilateral deals, instead
of an overall agreement among all five littoral
states. Moscow believes that in the absence of an
overall pact, bilateral agreements on the Caspian
are needed. Kazakhstan agreed and clinched a
separate deal with Russia in 2002, while
Azerbaijan eventually followed suit by signing a
similar agreement in 2003.
Caspian summit has been subject to endless delays.
In April 2004, Lavrov announced that it could have
been convened in the second half of 2004 in
Tehran. Iran said then that the summit had to be
postponed to an undisclosed date after its
presidential elections, but no new date was
Nonetheless, Tehran reiterated
readiness to host the summit, despite growing
tensions around its nuclear ambitions. "Iran is
ready to host the second summit of Caspian
states," Mochtaba Damirchilu, of the Iranian
Foreign Ministry, said at a briefing in Moscow.
The Iranian delegation had held a number of
consultations with Caspian states to define the
date of the summit, he said.
Meantime, Moscow has renewed attempts to forge
a multinational force in the Caspian Sea.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov suggested in
a visit to Azerbaijan this year that his
country, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and
Iran should make concerted efforts to deal with
security threats in the region.
could include defense, border control and
intelligence services, he said. His Azerbaijani
counterpart Safar Abiyev said his country was
ready to cooperate with Russia to launch joint
Still, Azerbaijan has made
little secret of its uneasiness over Russia's
strict rules regulating maritime and naval transit
between the Caspian and the Black seas through
Russian riverine routes.
"There were some
problems in connection with the passage of vessels
belonging to the Caspian states to the Black Sea,"
Khalafov said last month. "The Caspian littoral
countries are now trying to resolve the problem."
Russian President Vladimir
Putin last July attended an international
conference on Caspian security, held on board
Russia's Caspian Flotilla flagship naval vessel,
Tatarstan. The conference supported an idea of
creating a joint naval force of the littoral
states, similar to the Black Sea Force and
presumably under the Russian aegis.
The Russian Caspian
Flotilla still remains the strongest naval force in
the sea. After the division of the Soviet Caspian
Flotilla in 1992 between Moscow and Baku,
Russia kept three-quarters of the naval vessels and
personnel. In the past five years, Russia nearly
doubled its Caspian naval force, which now
includes two frigates, 12 major patrol vessels and
about 50 smaller vessels based in Astrakhan, as
well as some 20,000 personnel.
also moved to boost its economic clout in the
Putin and Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev
in July witnessed the signing of
a 55-year production-sharing agreement for the
Kurmangazy oilfield in the Caspian Sea. Russian
and Kazakh investment in the Kurmangazy oil deposit
could hit US$22 billion to $23 billion.
Russia and Kazakhstan also finalized a deal to
develop jointly the Khvalynskoye oil and gas field
in the northern Caspian.
Russia's state-controlled gas giant Gazprom now plans
to build a major petrochemical complex in
Russia's main Caspian port of Astrakhan, and crude-oil production
is expected to start in the Russian section
of the Caspian shelf by next year.
Moscow's opposition to outside meddling in
the Caspian region grows proportionately to its
increasingly significant economic interests.
Sergei Blagov covers
Russia and post-Soviet states,
with special attention to Asia-related issues.
He has contributed to Asia Times Online
since 1996. Between 1983 and 1997, he was
based in Southeast Asia. In 2001 and 2002, Nova
Science Publishers, New York, published two of his
books on Vietnamese history.