Acceleration of Caspian collaboration

Victoria Panfilova, columnist of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, specially for Vestnik Kavkaza
Acceleration of Caspian collaboration

The Avaza National Tourist Zone, Turkmenistan, hosted the first Caspian Economic Forum entitled “Caspian Sea: benefits of developing international economic cooperation”. The event was attended by the heads of government of five coastal countries and Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Abdullah Aripov (he was present as an honoured guest). At the forum, Russia and Iran kill the Trans-Caspian project stone dead.

A year ago, the heads of the Caspian five countries signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in Aktau, Kazakhstan. The countries of the region decided that the convention makes it possible to freely develop energy projects in the Caspian region if a transit country’s contest is obtained. What is involved here is the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline connecting Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Even the EU has become more active in the negotiation process.

However, Russia and Iran opposed the pipe construction through the Caspian Sea. Speaking at the forum, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medevedev said that an environmental impact assessment should be carried out on all major projects in the Caspian region. "I am absolutely convinced that all major projects in the Caspian Sea should undergo a thorough and impartial environmental review with the participation of experts from all Caspian countries," the prime minister emphasized. The Iranian National Gas Company representative, Behruz Namdari, supported him: "The construction of a gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea can seriously damage the region’s ecology ... Iran is against the construction." He recalled that Iran offers neighbors to use its infrastructure - gas pipelines and terminals - to supply gas to world markets.

The truth is that Moscow and Tehran have not yet ratified the Convention on the Caspian Sea. But, as Medvedev assured, Russia will do so shortly. As for Iran, a serious dispute flared up in the country's parliament over the ratification of the document. Iranian conservatives criticized the convention and refuse to ratify it.

However, the position of the neighbors is unlikely to upset the president of Turkmenistan. He noted that "the environment cannot be held hostage to economic and commercial benefits." As the head of the South Caucasus Club of Political Scientists, Ilgar Velizadeh, told Vestnik Kavkaza, the Trans-Caspian project has been discussed for more than two decades, and things are there where they started. There is no sufficient economic base for its implementation, there is no marketing - there are no declared volumes for deliveries of Turkmen gas, there is no price and a specific buyer. Cooperation in the energy sector on a bilateral or tripartite basis is more tempting - joint development of deposits in the zone of influence or at the common borders of Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan.

"Therefore, the parties are concentrating on real opportunities. In particular, Turkmenistan transports liquefied gas and oil, although to a limited extent, in the western direction through Azerbaijan. In this case, all attention is paid to transport and logistics schemes, since, in addition to port infrastructure, railways are used for the transportation of raw materials, ” the expert said. Velizadeh also noted the importance of developing coastal infrastructure. In particular, Russia has plans for the development of the Caspian coast - the modernization of the port in Makhachkala and the construction of a new port in Kalmykia. The same activities are being conducted in other countries. "The new infrastructure needs to be used. The Caspian Sea is a closed body of water, so if a port is being built somewhere, it should be calculated how it will interact with the port on the other side of the sea. In this case, we are talking about the interconnectedness of the works carried out,” the expert underlined.

Keeping in mind these facts, the Turkmen leader proposed creating a regional logistics center in the Caspian region. According to him, the territory of the Caspian littoral countries has direct access to South Asia and the Asia-Pacific region in the east, to the Black and Mediterranean Sea in the west, through Iran to the Near and Middle East in the south, and through Russia further in the northern direction to the the Baltic Sea coast. According to Berdymukhamedov, such a configuration opens up prospects for creating sustainable routes in all four directions, and for their normal functioning, the Caspian states should, first of all, establish a good system of transport communication between themselves. He emphasized that the countries of the region need to build a modern port infrastructure, ensure efficient logistics and work more actively on cooperation plans in the transport sector with clearly defined action algorithms and realistic deadlines.

However, experts are surprised by the statement of the Turkmen president, since the Caspian Sea is already a transport hub. The senior researcher at the Center for Caucasian, Central Asian and Volga Region Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences, Stanislav Pritchin, recalled that the region is involved in a number of transport projects - the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars road and many others. "There is already an active movement in three directions: eastern, western and northern. Now, a question to Tehran arises- when Iran will build its Qazvin-Rasht and Qazvin-Astara railway segments to complete the southern direction up to the Indian Ocean," Pritchin told Vestnik Kavkaza.

As has been mentioned, the Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulla Aripov attended the forum as an honored guest. Tashkent has a practical interest. Uzbekistan’s foreign policy is aimed at developing relations with its neighbors in the region, including with the Caspian countries. For a landlocked Uzbekistan, it is important to develop transport routes for exporting its goods. Today, Uzbekistan supplies cargos to Europe, Kazakhstan, Russia and the Baltic states. The opening of the Turkmenabat-Farab highway and railway bridge across the Amu Darya and the modern Turkmenbashi port will provide an opportunity to increase freight traffic. The issues of cooperation in the field of transport and communications were discussed at the negotiations between Aripov and Berdymukhamedov.