Has the Caspian Sea’s Legal Status Been Resolved?

Has the Caspian Sea’s Legal Status Been Resolved?

Caspian Sea, the largest inland sea, is located between the Caucasus Mountains and the vast flat land of Central Asia. It is surrounded by conflicting ethnic, national and international actors. The Caspian basin reached its apex prominence after the discovery of oil at the Baku area in 1848, the production of which came to dominate the energy market in 1888.

The actors that surround and have vast interests in the Caspian basin can be divided into four rings.

  1. The first circle includes the riparian states of the Caspian littoral, that is Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran.
  2. The second ring is known as the inward ring that includes countries such as Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Turkey and Georgia.
  3. The third ring is known as the outward ring that include countries such as India, Pakistan, China, the Gulf states, Israel, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine.
  4. And, the last ring includes two types of actors: external and non-state. The external actors with major interests include the EU, USA, Japan and East Asian states, while non-state actors includes oil companies, NGOs and legal bodies.

According to estimates, the Caspian Sea contains 233 billion untapped barrels of oil and 293 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Because of the presence of these enormous natural resources, the region has become the heart of geopolitics in recent years. However, there are several issues on the global political front regarding the Caspian basin, ranging from the maritime claims of the riparian states to its legal status according to international conventions.

Since the very beginning, the riparian states have been the major contenders in the Caspian region and have had extensive claims over the maritime boundary and fishing zones. But the legitimacy of exercising rights over the Caspian maritime boundaries has also been an issue because of the failure of the 1982 UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) to define the legal status of Caspian Sea. Articles 122 and 123 of the UNCLOS provide a general definition of enclosed seas but have failed to define the status of Caspian Sea. Article 122 of the Convention states the following:

“…enclosed or semi-enclosed sea means a gulf basin or sea surrounded by two or more states and connected to another sea or ocean by a narrow outlet or primarily of the territorial seas and exclusive economic zones of two or more coastal states.”

On the other hand, Article 123 of the Convention obliges the bordering states to cooperate with each other in the exercise of their rights under the prescribed rules of the Convention. By overhauling the definition of enclosed seas under the latter article of the 1982 Convention, various scholars of international law have avowed that Caspian and Aral seas cannot be declared or classified as enclosed seas because they do not have any connection or narrow passage with other seas or the ocean. However, up to a certain extent, the rule of the Convention on open seas can be applied to enclosed seas as well.

In accordance with these rules, the riparian states of the Caspian basin would be entitled to extend their sovereignty over the internal waters and territorial sea, for a distance of up to 12 nautical miles (NM) from the coast. The area beyond 12 NM, known as the contiguous zone, extends up to 24 NM from the coast and shall be limited to police, customs, fiscal, immigration, or sanitary functions, which would help them prevent or repress a violation of laws within their territory or territorial sea. Moreover, the area extending up to 200 NM is known as continental shelf. It is where the riparian states have sovereign rights but not absolute rights. It may be extended to 350 NM depending on the physical configuration of the continental shelf according to the rules of UNCLOS 1982.

On the contrary, the total width of the Caspian Sea is far less than 400 NM, which cannot be compared to the size of open seas. Therefore, the Caspian riparian states are obliged to cooperate in accordance with the Convention in order to achieve an equitable agreement on navigation rights. Russia and Kazakhstan are the most powerful contenders in the Caspian seabed because of their large flat geography. Moreover, river Akhtuba is located at the Russian-Kazakh frontier and it connects Russia with the Volga delta of the Caspian Sea. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, resulting in three successor states that share the border with the Caspian Sea, has exacerbated the legal status of the sea. The issue of legal status got heated further because of the nature of successor states in the Caspian region, since the 1978 Vienna Convention on the Succession of States declared only Russian Federation as the successor state of the Soviet Union. Moreover, it has been observed that the riparian states used the issue of legal status as a weapon to maximize their economic and political objectives. So far there have been six major summits between the riparian states about the legal status of the Caspian Sea.

The first major summit regarding its legal status was held in Ashgabat in 1996, where Foreign Ministers of the riparian states met and discussed different proposals regarding the size of their exclusive economic zones. During the summit, Iran suggested 10 NM, Russia 20 NM, Turkmenistan 60 NM and Kazakhstan 80 NM, but Azerbaijan demanded sectoral division which was declined by the other states, thus, the summit ended with status quo positions. However, in 1997, at the Almaty Summit of Central Asian leaders, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan supported the temporary division of the entire sea into national sectors and signed an agreement affirming the rights of the riparian states to exploit the seabed. Similarly in later summits, all the riparian states expressed their willingness to accept the division of the seabed into national sectors but with undefined boundaries.

Recently, on 12th August, 2018, a summit was held in Akhtau, Kazakhstan, in which Presidents of the riparian states met to resolve the legal status of the Caspian Sea in order to improve security and enhance the share of untapped resources in the Caspian seabed. During this summit, the leader of each nation gave the impression of having keen interest in resolving the international status of the sea and expressed concerns about external security threats to the region. Russian President, Vladimir Putin said,

“…an agreement is necessary to protect the vast resources of the Caspian seabed from external actors.”

The same thoughts were expressed by Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, who also affirmed that the boundaries of the seabed were still unmarked.

Thus, in light of this emergency summit, it seems obvious that leaders of the riparian states are frightened by the hostile international situation that has compelled them to reach an agreement. Even though the states have reached an agreement regarding maritime security and the sharing of resources in their respective sectoral areas, the boundary of each sector remains disputed and can cause the conflict of national interests in the near future. Unfortunately, the furtherance of the dispute will also exacerbate illegal activities in and around the Caspian Sea and continue to affect the marine environment.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which he might be associated.

Shahzada Rahim

Author: Shahzada Rahim

The writer is a postgraduate student with keen interest in history, geopolitics, current affairs and the international political economy.