Russia, Iran and other states agree on Caspian Sea access

The leaders of five countries bordering the Caspian Sea signed a landmark convention Sunday regarding the legal status of the body of water.

Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan signed the deal in the small seaside city of Aktau, in Kazakhstan.

The inland sea has been a bone of contention among the five bordering countries since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The agreement is expected to ease regional tensions, and could accelerate the development of lucrative oil and gas projects.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazerbyev, who hosted the meeting, said before the signing ceremony that the leaders were "participants in a historic event."

"We can admit that consensus on the status of the sea was hard to reach and not immediate, the talks lasted more than 20 years and called for a lot of joint efforts from the parties," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pushed for an agreement, said the deal had "epoch-making significance" and called for more military cooperation among the countries bordering the Caspian.

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Sunday's meeting was the fifth of its kind since 2002 but there were more than 50 lower-level meetings since the collapse of the Soviet Union gave birth to four new countries surrounding the inland sea.

More talks ahead

One bone of contention among the participants was whether the body of water is a sea or a lake — each of which is subject to different international laws.

The convention refers to the Caspian as a sea but Russia's deputy foreign minister Grifory Karasin told Kommersant daily this week that provisions in the treaty give it "a special legal status."

The convention keeps most of the sea in shared use but nonetheless divides-up the seabed and underground resources, according to the Kremlin.

Iran ended up with the smallest share of the sea in accordance with the terms of the deal, and may end up a potential loser in the agreement.

That would explain why Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the deal "a major document" on Sunday but stressed that it doesn't solve all of the disagreements surrounding the sea.

"Today we have a framework for actions in the Caspian Sea which was not the case before," Rouhani said in comments translated into English. "But there are other issues to deal with in other meetings."

Still, Rouhani hailed a stipulation in the convention that prevents non-Caspian countries from deploying military forces on the sea.

"The Caspian Sea," he said, "only belongs to the Caspian states."

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bik/ng (Reuters, AFP)

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