BILATERAL AGREEMENTS DO NOT SETTLE THE CASPIAN PROBLEM AS A WHOLE
Last Monday Presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan Vladimir Putin and Heydar Aliev signed the agreement on separation of contiguous parts of the Caspian Sea. It means Moscow and Baku finally defined the line which divides the part of the Caspian bottom and its bosoms between the two countries and therefore coordinated the approach to solution of the legal status of the Caspian. However the bilateral agreements do not settle the Caspian problem as a whole.
As head of Azerbaijan said "it is a very important step which meets the principles of the international law". The Russian leader gave a more spacious estimation to the signed document, "The agreement got strong legal basis due to common approaches, it contributes to mutual solution of the status of the Caspian Sea in the interests of all coastal states". By the way the same thought was reflected in the signed document, in particular "the agreement does not impede reaching of a common consent of Caspian states concerning the legal status of Caspian Sea and is treated as a part of their general consent".
However these statements do not meet the real state of affairs. Only Kazakhstan out of all Caspian states can undersign them while Turkmenistan and Iran have supported and continue supporting another viewpoint. That is why, in any case, the Russian-Azeri agreement is treated as a separate agreement.
Russia and Kazakhstan were the first states, which beat the path to this direction: in July 1998 Boris Yeltsin and Nursultan Nazarbayev signed the agreement on "Separation of bottom of the northern part of Caspian to follow the sovereign rights for bosom utilization". The document was prepared in secrecy and other Caspian states knew about it only after its signing.
Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan signed the agreement on division of bottom of the Caspian Sea at the end of 2001. Naturally, the agreement was welcomed by neither Turkmenistan nor Iran. Moreover, they treated it as an aspiration to torpedo the process of Caspian status definition on the basis of consensus. All it resulted in tensed relations between Azerbaijan on the one side and Turkmenistan and Iran on the other side.
The last attempt to solve the Caspian problem by joint efforts was undertaken in April 2002 at the summit of leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia. However the high level meeting failed. Despite it, presidents of these state pretended that nothing happened. In particular, Vladimir Putin stated about the reached mutual understanding "all issues can be solved by bilateral negotiations only", he said. However, as it became clear later such words should have been treated as rhetoric addressed to Turkmenistan and Iran first of all.
A month later Vladimir Putin and President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev signed an agreement on separation of bottom of northern part of Caspian. It meant that conclusion of the agreement with Azerbaijan became the final and quite logical link in Russia's policy on solution of the Caspian problem by separate keys.
But is the game worth the candles? There is no definite answer to this question. As a matter of fact, acting this way Russia disclaimed responsibility for solution of the Caspian problem as a whole as currently it has no contradictions on this issue with coastal states, in particular with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. And now the exiting node of tension should be solved by Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran as these countries have some differences concerning the right for a number of offshore oil deposits. In the economic aspect Russia also gets some advantage, as there are high chances for Russian companies' participation in mastering of rich oil deposits that Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have.
However there are also some disadvantages, which Moscow, as it seems, underestimates. First of all it refers to obvious deterioration of relations with Ashkhabad and Teheran. As to Ashkhabad, it also means that Turkmen gas can bypass the Russian "blue fuel" and compete with our gas on western markets. As to Iran, Russia willy-nilly acts in favor of US, which has a rigid position to this country. Besides, there is another moment here. After the failure of the summit of Caspian states, head of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov said that delaying solution of the Caspian problem "smells badly and may result in estrangement of Caspian states from each other".