During the past week, the Caspian Sea was all over mass media reports. The discussion of the prospects of the meeting of the Caspian Five was succeeded by the reports of the scandalous absence of signatures under its resulting document. Later came the visit of Russia's President to the city of Astrakhan and his directives - on camera - concerning the wide-scale manoeuvers of the Caspian military fleet. The reports were so detailed that the intrigues of big-time politics suddenly seemed exposed to an unusual degree. Yet something still remained in the shadows. Take for instance the fact that all these events around the Caspian Sea closely preceded the meeting of the oil ministers of the Big Eight scheduled for May 1 and 2. And looking a bit further and wider, this took place right before the Russian-American summit.
Mass media called the absence of the resulting document unexpected, to say the least, and scandalous. What's more, the President himself provoked such epithets by letting those listening understand that Russia definitely had expected more to come out of this. Everyone remembered what the President had intriguingly said on camera, his Kazakh colleague standing right next to him, that the potential of the meeting of the Caspian Five that had just begun was very good, if unexpected to many, yet it was a bit too early to discuss. So all those listening took it the only way they could, surmising that the problem, which had remained inaccessible for 11 years would be over with the first time the leaders of the Five met.
How real this indeed was may be argued. After the official talk in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, to the effect that the meeting taking place at all was already good enough, President Putin called his partners in the Caspian summit weak negotiators. Did Russia at all consider the possibility of a pragmatic approach to the problem, and if yes, how seriously? Just think of it, straight from Ashgabat Mr. Putin went to Astrakhan where he remained for three days, which was unexpectedly long. Was it an impromptu move following the alleged 'lack of success' in Ashgabat?
It was in Astrakhan, Russia's strategic stronghold in the Caspian region, as the President called it, that he made his most important statements. What was voiced was that serious struggle was beginning 'lest Russia falls behind her competitors and behind the important possibilities being developed by her Caspian Sea partners in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan'. In this matter, the price of missing the point is possible defeat in competition and the loss of the 'starting strategic advantages'.
Reportedly, the Caspian Sea holds 70% of all world's sturgeon and large, even huge, depending on who counts, reserves of hydrocarbons. Besides, quite obviously and increasingly, the region is becoming a key issue in geopolitical games. It was exactly the geopolitical significance of the Caspian Sea that President Putin pointed out by saying, 'I have not just incidentally called Astrakhan Russia's stronghold in the Caspian region. Indeed, after the geopolitical shifts following the disintegration of the USSR, such places on the Caspian Sea as the city of Astrakhan where Russia keeps her foothold have become especially important'.
The geopolitical games seem to become ever hotter. One could take comfort in what Saparmurat Niyazov, the President of Turkmenistan, said to the effect that 'We promise to each other one thing and that is none of us is going to use force'. Yet Russia openly shows that where the Caspian Sea is concerned her gunpowder will be kept dry and ready. We quite honestly say this is no threat. The honesty is well illustrated by that there have been no military manoeuvres on the Caspian Sea for 10 years. So what threat can anyone talk about?
While being no threat, the manoeuvres are supposed to be the demonstration of the presence and unchanged key role of Russia on the Caspian Sea. This is why these manoeuvres of the Caspian fleet will be joined by the troops of the North Caucasian Military District, Federal Border Guards, and the Air Force and Air Defence 4th Army. And because, as the President also said, 'Today, this region is the focus of the interests of not just Caspian states but many others', the sea seems exactly the place where Russia's diplomats will be maximally insistent, Russia's entrepreneurs - maximally ambitious, and the Russian state - both maximally insistent and ambitious.
If everyone involved cannot agree, there will be separate agreements. After all, on exactly April 26, we successfully reached an agreement with Kazakhstan, concerning the use of three oil fields in the northern part of the Caspian Sea. Not everyone is prepared for compromises? Let us add the discussion of environmental protection to the agenda. Do they disagree with Russia's proposal to divide the bottom and share the water? Then we must get the UN to introduce the unified methods of the identification of sturgeon species in order to adjust quotas as to sturgeon fishing and caviar exports, and so on.
Right before the visit of President Bush to our country, President Putin says, 'We are planning a number of steps, which, once made, will undoubtedly strengthen the leading position of Russia on the Caspian Sea'.
Washington has long been talking about increasing its influence in the Caspian Sea region and proclaiming the area the zone of the key interests of the US. In 1999, the whole Black Sea-Caspian region was included in the US armed forces' sphere of responsibility in the Gulf of Persia zone. By the way, the proclamations of the imminent military operation of the US against Iraq have become less audible yet have never been rescinded.
Vladimir Putin's critics have been long accusing the President of not having any intelligible policies as to Central Asia, the Balkans, or Middle East. Somehow, they never mentioned the Caspian region. Yet this is exactly where the intelligibility seems to be very much in evidence.
Natalia Starichkova, Rosbalt News Agency