An exclusive interview with Rusif Huseynov, сo-founder and director of Topchubashov Center (Baku).
How can you assess the recent developments around the legal status of the Caspian Sea?
The first legal documents on the Caspian Sea were concluded between the USSR and Iran first in 1921, later in 1940. Although four independent states (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan) replaced the Soviet Union in 1991, no document ever replaced the Soviet-Iranian agreements.
Given rich hydrocarbon and fishing resources of the Caspian Sea, defining its legal status was a crucial issue. However, the major disagreement over this status stemmed from a dilemma whether to recognize this water basin as sea or lake. Although other countries favored the division of the sea by a equidistant line, Iran that has the smallest coastline, hence, the smallest national sector, did not. Moreover, Russia had always been opposing any underwater pipelines, since they could undermine Russia`s energy dominance in Europe (Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan had long been negotiating a gas pipeline through the Caspian Sea, which would transport cheap Turkmen gas to European markets).
After more than 20 years of negotiations, the five Caspian states – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan – finally agreed upon a legal framework for sharing the world’s biggest inland body of water.
The Convention adopted in Aktau, Kazakhstan in August 2018 established a special regime in the Caspian, dividing it into 15-mile sovereign waters and another 10 miles for fishing zones where each country has sovereign and exceptional rights. Beyond those zones are there common waters. The state line issue which will finalize national sectors is put aside to be determined with a separate agreement.
Another provision from the Convention would especially be considered as gain by Russian and Iranian diplomats is the military presence of non-Caspian actors is forbidden in the basin.
The document also recognizes the right of the coastal states to build cables and pipelines through the seabed: the routes of such lines shall be coordinated by the coastal states whose sectors will be used in this regard. This key provision will enable to extend the Caucasus-centered transport and energy corridor toward Central Asia.
What is your assessment of Azerbaijan`s role in European energy projects?
Azerbaijan is a key player in European energy security and has been not only participating in but initiating some projects of paramount importance.
In this regard, we can point out to the Southern Gas Corridor, a large-scale project that will transport natural gas from the Caspian Sea and Middle East to Europe. This initiative consists of the South Caucasus Pipeline (Azerbaijan, Georgia), the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (Turkey), and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (Greece, Albania, Italy). The Southern Gas Corridor is estimated at over $40 billion, with some $11.5 billion from the funding volume resting on the shoulders of Azerbaijan.
Although the main and initial source for natural gas supply is Shah Deniz field in Azerbaijan`s sector of the Caspian Sea, other gas exporting countries from the region are expected to join. Most notably, Turkmenistan can take part in the project once a proposed 300-km gas line is build through the Caspian Sea.
This project will allow Europe to receive gas not only from Russia, but also from other sources, thus, greatly contributing to diversification of energy sources of Europe and reducing the dependence on Russia.
To what extent are Baku-Ankara military relations contributing to the regional security?
Interestingly enough, three countries in the South Caucasus have chosen completely different paths in foreign policy, including military relations. With Armenia being a member of Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and Georgia aspiring to join NATO, Azerbaijan has instead opted to develop bilateral relations with Turkey.
Sharing almost the same language and religion and functioning under the motto “One people, two states”, Azerbaijan and Turkey have been enjoying extraordinary ties. In the military sphere, these two countries reached a rather unusual agreement in 2010: almost no other NATO member-state, except for the United States, has given far reaching security guarantees to a non-NATO state.
In fact, Turkey`s virtual protection of Azerbaijan keeps the military balance in the region. Psychologically, the Azerbaijanis, due to historically established Russian and Iranian threats, feel more confident. Annual joint military drills, jet shows (the most recent having taken place in June 2018) are set to display these close ties.
The Azerbaijani side has long trying to involve Georgia into this alliance and form a military triangle in the region. As Andreas Umland, a famous expert on East Europe, has noted in his recent interview, it would also be wise for Georgia (and Ukraine) to learn the Azerbaijani-Turkish experience in military cooperation. Hanging in limbo, both Georgia and Ukraine, could be offered some alternative security structures by NATO member-states, since the former two cannot join the organization itself in the near future.