Neighborhood Challenge: Outlook to Caspian Security from Azerbaijan

Monday, July 16, 2012

            Caspian Basin can best be described as a strategic natural border linking five states: Russia on the north, Iran on the south, two Central-Asian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on the east and South-Caucasian Azerbaijan on the west. Caspian Basin rich with natural resources and at the same time situated in geopolitically important region has long since become their collective concern of the neighboring states both in matters of delimitation of the basin as well as with security issues.
            Most of the conflicts of interest on the Caspian arise due to the fact that neighboring states have yet to decide on its legal status and establish recognized borders. Azerbaijan in its turn has always maintained the view that Caspian Sea has to be divided into five sectors. Thus in the limits of its own sector each state would be able to exercise its sovereignty.
            Such a position has a strong merit due to the fact that though Caspian is usually referred to as “sea” in reality is a very big lake as it is inland and does not constitute a part of the ocean. Thus, international law that can be applied to the seas does not apply to the Caspian, making the legal status of Caspian negotiable between the neighboring countries. However, it should be kept in mind that the customary practice of states in cases with bordering lakes is usually sector-based approach.
            Another matter is the environmental security of the basin. Here the approach changes due to the fact that any environmental damage to the Caspian Sea in localized sector would inevitably cause damage to all of the neighboring states. Hence, the situation calls for the approach based on the collective responsibility to protect environment.
            As opposed to the environment there are also military concerns. Recent years have shown steady growth of naval forces of all five neighboring states with Russia and Iran conducting modernization of their Caspian-based vessels and equipment, while Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan made considerable purchases of their own. Such situation was inevitably stimulating for Azerbaijan to start developing its naval military presence to be able to maintain its own naval security. Though such a military growth created a lot of speculations on why there is a need for Azerbaijan to develop naval presence so rapidly and against which country such a trend can be directed, these speculations are quite baseless due to the fact that the equipment Azerbaijan have purchased, was defensive in nature and thus cannot be directed against anybody. Plus it is only natural that Azerbaijan would build up on its naval security considering the overall geopolitical situation in the region.
            In May 2012 in line with such strategy Azerbaijan has conducted its naval military exercises called “Protection of Oil and Gas Fields, Platforms, and Export Pipelines” using ships, speedboats and helicopters. The main focus of the exercises was on protection and defense against terrorist attacks with no offensive objectives.
            However, the largest focus in Caspian still remains on energy security. Due to its geographic location Caspian is a very important link for energy transfers between rich with natural gas Turkmenistan and South Caucasus with opening corridors to Europe. For that same reason the idea of Transcaspian pipeline has dragged a lot of attention in both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan as well as in Europe. Construction of such a pipeline would allow for the access of Turkmenistan on the European market while supplying Europe with the natural gas it needs thus creating a steady and secure flow of the energy resources from Central Asia.
            Though the project in itself is purely financial, there is a clear picture that it might not be in full accord with political, financial and other interests of other Caspian states. Especially with the borders of Caspian Sea still under question, level of political pressure rises atop the idea of the new pipeline. However, for official Baku it seems the issue stays in the limits of pure practicality. While Azerbaijan expresses both its interest and readiness for the creating of Transcaspian pipeline it will pursue its financial interests and the final decision will be made surely on the grounds of financial feasibility rather than issue-based negotiations. In light of that, it seems only logical that the decision should be made by the two interested states in the limits of their sovereign sectors of the Caspian without need for politicizing the overall process.
           All in all the common security of the Caspian is a serious issue for Azerbaijan. There are still challenges with both legal status of the sea as well as in issues of energy and military security. All of these are possible to overcome with the constructive and pragmatic approach that Azerbaijan is trying to adopt and relay.

Kamal Makili-Aliyev
Doctor of Laws (LL.D)

New Europe, Issue 995, 15-21 July.

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