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    Central Asia
     Mar 21, 2006
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.

He 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 assisting the

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.

The second 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 scheduled.

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.

That 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 Caspian forces.

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.

Moscow has also moved to boost its economic clout in the northern Caspian.

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.

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