Oil and Geopolitics in the Caspian Sea Region

By Michael P. Croissant; Bülent Aras | Go to book overview

2

The Legal Status of the Caspian Sea: Conflict and Compromise

Cynthia M. Croissant and Michael P. Croissant

More than five years after the signing of the first major international contract for the development of offshore oil fields on the Caspian Sea, a dispute over the legal status of the sea goes unresolved. Russia and Iran, on one hand, contend that the Caspian is actually an inland lake and thus subject to joint control by all the littoral states. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, argues that the Caspian is a sea that should be divided into national sectors over which each state has exclusive sovereignty, and the other two coastal states, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan, have more or less supported the Azerbaijani side. Although both sides' arguments are framed in legalistic terms, the Caspian status dispute is above all a question of geopolitics. The insistence by Russia and Iran that the Caspian's ecosystem can only be protected if the littoral states exert mutual control of the sea is merely a means to a common geopolitical end: to impede Western investment in the region and relegate Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakstan to a status short of full independence. For the smaller littoral powers, however, sovereignty over the offshore riches of the Caspian is absolutely essential to cementing their independence after centuries of foreign domination.


THE LEGAL DISPUTE

The Caspian Sea is the world's largest inland body of water, covering 370,000 square kilometers—an area roughly the size of Japan. Geographically, it is typically divided into the North, Middle, and South Caspian. The North Caspian covers 61,408 square kilometers in area, has low shorelines, and is very shallow in general, being less than eight meters deep. The Middle Caspian, on the other hand, is 85,200 square kilometers in area, with a shallowest depth of 95 to 130 meters. The western shore of the Middle Caspian runs into the foot-hills of the Great Caucasus Mountains after hitting a narrow marine plain.

The South Caspian, a depression covering 92,112 square kilometers, contains

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