I What is at Stake: Transnational Issues

Caspian ‘Sea’1 and Its International Legal Status

Kamal Makili-Aliyev


Caspian “sea” is a unique water object on our planet. Its resource rich basin had for a long time been considered one of the main economic foundations of the peoples that used to live on its shores since times immemorial. Caspian basin also possesses the unique capabilities for logistics and transportation, tourism, recreation and, of course, it is a great source of oil and gas.

Until the fall of Soviet Union in 1991, the whole of the Caspian “sea” have been under formal jurisdiction of the USSR and Iran. However, de facto the Caspian “sea” was in exclusive sovereignty of the Soviet Union.[1] [2] After 1991 the number of littoral states of the Caspian increased to five - Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. Consequently these states were faced with the challenge of effective cooperation while sharing such a common water basin. The attempts by these states to secure their rights and interests have created a lot of problems of not only the political character, but foremost of the legal character.

The key problem that needs to be solved for the further cooperation and rapprochement of all littoral states of the Caspian is thus its legal status. It has to be pointed out that such legal status was not a popular or trendy theme in academia during the time of USSR for obvious political and ideological reasons. Its practical applicability was also under the strict question mark. However, after the emergence of new littoral states and oil and gas production ‘boom’, the new generation of scholars has started to turn its attention to this rapidly developing legal problem. The situation became only more acute when it became clear that Caspian ‘sea’ slowly turned into a tight knot of geopolitical, geo-economical and geo-strategic interest of both littoral states as well as actors from outside the region.

For littoral states the importance of the clear definition of legal status of Caspian ‘sea’ is surely, and first of all, lies in defining their property on the resources of this water basin. Due to the differences in positions and interests, the negotiations on the legal status have stretched out since the independence of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan until now and they are still ongoing. Despite the many bilateral and multilateral meetings of the representatives of littoral states, including those on the highest level, they have failed to come to a common ground on the position of legal status of the Caspian.

This article will try to look at the different theories concerning the legal status of Caspian ‘sea’ and see which of them are most comprehensive in reflecting international law and practice and can be used to serve as theoretical legal background in negotiations on the status of the Caspian. It will also focus on the legal problems of defining the status for the Caspian, due to the fact that there is a very limited number of cases in international practice that can be compared with the situation around the appropriate legal status of the Caspian ‘sea’.

  • [1] Word “sea” is taken in quotation marks due to the point of view of the author (reflected further in the article)that Caspian water basin constitutes a lake.
  • [2] B. Aghai Diba, “The Law and Politics of the Caspian Sea in the Twenty-First Century”, in The Positions andViews of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan with Special Reference to Iran, Bethesda (Maryland),IBEX Publishers, 2003, p. 31-33; G. Nugman, “The Legal Status of Caspian Sea”, Eurasian Studies, Spring,1998, 13, pp. 80-83; С.С.Жильцов, И.С.Зонн, А.М.Ушков, Геополитика Каспийского ? егиона,«Международные отношения», Москва, 2003, с. 52-53.
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