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Revealed Perspectives for Russia and Turkey by the New Status of the Caspian Sea

Turkey, which has been sliding into a process of transformation with reference to economy, civil society, and political actors, deals with crises especially due to the fact that it cannot provide a solution to the structural problems emerging with its immediate neighbors and as a result, it misses the global changes and opportunities. The most obvious example is the change of status in the Caspian region, which concerns Turkey closely, with regards to both political relations and energy resources through Caucasia and Central Asian Republics. 

The Caspian Region ranks second in the world in terms of energy resources. The region was the focal point of both the countries that have a coast on the sea and global powers because of the great potential it has. Uncertainty of status in the region and long-lasting disagreements made way to some international problems.

“The Caspian Sea belongs only to the countries in the Caspian region”

The presidents of five countries that have a coast on the Caspian Sea, namely Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, signed a treaty, which has been plugged away at since 1996, on 12 August in order to determine the legal status of the natural gas and oil-rich region. It was a matter of debate whether the Caspian is actually a sea or a lake. Given the special status of the Caspian Sea law agreement in 1982, the UN will not be applied and the depth of water will be determined by the lake principle. There were constant disputes between the countries that have a coast on the sea since this status had not been determined before.

Therefore, this discussion is now over and significant acquisitions are acquired towards the international initiatives of the coastal states of the Caspian Sea. For example, the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan natural gas pipeline project, which was previously opposed by Russia, might be implementable as long as the desired environmental standards are met. Moscow had asserted environmental concerns about the pipeline which will offer an alternative to Russia and would deliver Turkmenistan’s natural gas to Europe through Azerbaijan.

The Don and Volga Rivers, which connect the Caspian Sea with the Azov Sea and the Black Sea, were artificially connected in order to create a channel and the potential for the resources to be delivered to the international market was increased. Although these rivers are subjected to Russia’s inland waterway regime, the very fact that they are being used for transportation makes it quite beneficial also for Russia.

The countries which do not have a coast on the Caspian Sea will not be able to have military troops deployed there according to the agreement reached by the leaders of the countries that have a coast on the Caspian Sea. According to the statement of President of Iran Hassan Rouhani, “Caspian Sea belongs only to the countries in the Caspian region.” 

The bottom of the Caspian Sea and the subsoil will be shared according to the grounds such as territorial waters, fishing grounds, and the use of resources according to the agreement. The agreement, which was signed a few months ago on 19 September in the lower wing of the Russian parliament, Duma, and in the upper wing in the Federation Council on 25 September, was officially accepted by Russia and came into force on 1 October 2019 together with the approval of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia has the highest amount of reserves in the global energy markets with regards to the transnational distribution of natural gas which plays a major role for the Caspian region to rise to prominence. Russia, which holds 25% of the total Caspian natural gas reserves with a total of 3 trillion cubic meters, is followed by Kazakhstan with 2.9 trillion cubic meters. Azerbaijan is the third with 1.4 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves although it has the shortest coastline in the region.

The resources of the Caspian region acts as an alternative for the EU countries which rely upon natural gas for many of their fields from industries to healthcare. EU countries, which depend heavily on Russia with regards to its energy, will boost their investments to the alternative routes that are capable of using Caspian reserves. In this respect, the energy lines including Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan will gain importance. Although the new projects in prospect are considered as an alternative, Russia will be able to continue to be the power without an alternative for tens of years with regards to its natural gas resources with its current reserves. 

European countries, which depend heavily on energy in Russia, will increase investment in alternative routes that can use Caspian reserves. In this respect, the energy lines including Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan will gain importance. Even though the new projects considered are alternative, Russia will continue to be an alternative power for decades with its existing reserves in terms of natural gas resources.

The Caspian region is also rich in oil reserves. Approximately 65% of the total of 48.2 billion barrels of oil reserves belong to Kazakhstan. In terms of oil reserves, Kazakhstan is followed by Azerbaijan (8.5 billion barrels) and Russia (6.1 billion barrels). Considering these figures, it is an undoubted fact that Central Asia and the Caspian region will be the Middle East of the 21st Century.

Turkey can turn the Caspian potential 

The new developments in the Caspian region from the point of Turkey is quite important considering the increasing function of the natural resources on the economies of the countries and influential foreign policies. The fact that Turkey being the cheapest route for the exportation of the region’s oil and natural gas resources to Europe might have significant contributions for Turkey’s objective to be an energy center together with the politics developed with the countries of the Caspian region. 

Turkey might take a more active role in the transportation of the resources in the Caspian region in case the country manages to maintain a certain level of relations with the EU. The countries in the Caspian region might redirect the positive approaches of Turkey to Europe’s security needs towards the energy supply. The position gained by Turkey about the security of the energy supply, which has become a critical issue for the European countries in recent years, might be used more effectively for Turkey’s EU membership process. 

Turkey might turn real projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) into more profitable projects by giving confidence to the Western countries with regards to communication and bureaucracy. Turkey, which is currently suffering from economic constriction at present, will have the chance to improve its image by becoming a center that provides the delivery of the reserves in the Caspian region to the world market and also will get in return for the energy transmission.  

This status will also result in mutual economic development and cooperation between Turkey and the Middle Eastern and Transcaucasian countries which are culturally and historically linked with Turkey. Without a doubt, serious duties await Turkey in this historical responsibility. On one hand, Turkey must establish an environment of trust regarding its relationships with other Turkish nations, and on the other hand, it should produce projects by taking into account the geographical barriers between the new republics. The Turkish world cannot display any kind of integrity due to the diplomatic mistakes in recent history. 

Turkey, which cannot use the advantage of its geographical position despite being adjacent to an energy-rich region, will be an influential country towards providing solutions to the problems if it might be able to use the opportunity offered by the Caspian region in recent years and manages to keep the transfer of a strategic value such as energy under control. Otherwise, it will swiftly continue to be Middle Easternized just like it has been doing like for the last five years. 

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Arif Asalıoğlu is General Director of the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation in Moscow; expert in the field of Russian-Turkish relations; columnist of Informational agency REGNUM; Founder of Russian and Turkish Intellectuals Meeting.


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