Putin Visits Turkmenistan, Discusses Trade & Attends The Caspian Summit

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Western media focuses on table sizes while the Summit discusses Caspian transportation and logistics that affect the EU, Middle-East, India, South Asia and China.

Caspian States Leaders Meeting In Ashgabat

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Russian President Putin, fresh from his visit to Dushanbe to meet with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, arrived in Ashgabat last Wednesday to discuss matters over the development of the Caspian Sea and hold one-to-one meetings with the Turkmenistan and Iranian Presidents.

The Caspian Littoral States Summit

While the EU has closed its borders and ports with Russia, they may have misjudged the connectivity implications. Rather than EU-China freight passing EU-Russia-Kazakhstan-China, with that route now disconnected, the alternative southern route EU-Georgia/Turkey-Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan-China has now come to the fore. The issue here for the EU is that Russia is a powerful Caspian Sea nation and a member of the Caspian Littoral States group, which includes the “Caspian Five” – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. The EU simply doesn’t have a seat at the Caspian table, yet the Caspian routes from Azerbaijan’s Baku Port east to China, India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia are critical components of EU imports and exports with Asia.

In fact, Western media mainly mocked the meeting for the size of the table its leaders used, in examples here, here and here amongst several others. This attitude is misplaced when considering the importance of the summit and the future developments of the Caspian Sea in transportation and energy supplies.

Putin supported the Kazakh and Azerbaijani Presidents intent to increase the capacity for a rapid response to natural and man-made incidents in the Caspian Sea, and suggested holding a meeting of the countries – signatories of the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, also known as the 2003 Tehran Convention, which serves as a legal basis for addressing different issues in the Caspian region.

Putin noted the necessity to address ecological problems, including the reduction of the sturgeon population and the protection of marine mammals and birds for the purification of seawater.

Regarding the development of the region’s energy resources, he said Caspian countries have already implemented agreements on joint exploitation of oil and gas fields located in the Caspian Sea, an issue that affects oil and gas rich Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in particular and which again is of strategic importance to the EU as they search for new suppliers. Russia considers the main tasks of the countries included in the Caspian “five” to continue building economic ties, Putin said.

“Caspian countries have a lot to do to improve the transport infrastructure, which in turn will contribute to the development of tourism and trade in the region” he stated.

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev emphasized the growing importance of the Caspian Sea due to its geostrategic location, rich natural resources, and transit potential which become more relevant taking into account the geopolitical developments in the region. “The coronavirus pandemic, the growing geopolitical tension and other challenges require us, as never before, to combine our efforts to ensure the stability and sustainable development of the Caspian region.” said Tokayev.

Over the past 30 years, the status of the Caspian Sea has been a matter of heated geopolitical discussion. The Caspian didn’t make waves before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 when it was shared only between the Soviet Union and Iran, which classified it as a lake in the 1921 and 1940 treaties. The years after 1991 witnessed a long debate between Russia, Iran, and the three independent states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union and now bordered the body of water: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan.

After more than two decades of diplomatic negotiations, the five states gathered in Aktau in western Kazakhstan in August 2018, to sign the Caspian Convention, which decided that the Caspian has a “special legal status.”

The convention grants the states jurisdiction over 15 miles of territorial waters extending from their coastlines and exclusive fishing rights over an additional 10 miles. The rest of the water is subject to bilateral agreements between the littoral countries.

According to Tokayev, the Caspian Sea is not only a huge reservoir of useful resources, but also a “sea of unlimited opportunities.” He outlined promising areas for cooperation to fully unlock the potential of the Caspian countries.

“Today, our primary objective is to ensure a fast entry into force of the Convention. For four years we have been working diligently to find mutually acceptable solutions for this issue. We in Kazakhstan are sympathetic to the position of the parties, as these issues directly affect national interests. For our part, we are ready to make every effort to achieve the desired result,” said Tokayev.

He noted that with the disruption of traditional logistics chains, transport interconnectivity is becoming a key factor for sustainable growth and strengthening economic ties between states, stressing the increasingly important role of the Trans-Caspian international transport route in ensuring transit flows between Europe, Central Asia, and China.

“Following the results of five months this year, the volume of transportation of Kazakhstan’s cargoes along the route increased 2.5 times, and the total cargo turnover with the Caspian countries increased by more than nine percent. To increase the volume of cargo flows by sea, we have started modernizing its port infrastructure and expanding the maritime fleet. I believe that we should jointly and promptly solve urgent organizational issues. This concerns timely approval of mutually acceptable and unified tariffs and eliminating bottlenecks.”

Speaking about food security, Tokayev stated that the volume of mutual trade of Kazakhstan with the Caspian countries was approximately US$3.5 billion, and around 70 percent of it was with Russia via land routes.

“Kazakhstan has significant potential to increase exports of meat and dairy products. To strengthen trade cooperation between our states, we have to consistently develop modern logistics infrastructure. Therefore, we propose to create a Caspian food hub, which will allow increasing mutual trade turnover with minimal costs.”

Putin also held talks with the acting head of state of Turkmenistan, Serdar Berdimuhamedov as well as holding discussions with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi. These will have included discussions on trade in addition to oil and gas supplies and future connectivity. Between them, Russia, Iran, and Turkmenistan hold 45.4% of the world’s total gas reserves, while Russia and Iran hold 14.3% of global oil reserves.

Black Sea connectivity to the Caspian via rail routes from Georgia and Turkish Black Sea ports to Azerbaijan’s Baku Port is also very much part of the remaining EU-Asia connectivity. It should be noted that Russia will in all probability also control the northern Black Sea coast following its conflict with Ukraine. In closing the borders to Russia, the EU has instead made itself more reliant upon Russia’s wishes in the region, not less as Moscow retains significant influence in both seas. That creates the potential to further affect supply chain routes and regional energy supplies with the EU.

The Summit concluded with the following remarks: “The Caspian Sea has tremendous potential for economic and energy cooperation. By revitalizing economic connectivity, and regional alignment will be enhanced. This broader integration will provide a win-win cooperative framework and avoid any conventional rivalry. In the 21st century, orthodox and dysfunctional principles have been replaced by advanced systems and ideas. Thereby, it is crucial to understand the utility of new logistic, economic, and energy corridors. Good transportation routes are necessary to make Caspian economies more diversified and competitive. It is noteworthy that the five Caspian littoral states have been fulfilling the agreements on joint cooperation of the offshore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea. In this aspect, the natural wealth of the Caspian Sea will rationally and effectively serve the interests of all parties.”

Western media however discusses table sizes a sign of just how far apart East and West have become in their mutual ability to discuss matters of regional and global importance.

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