The Caspian Sea is the biggest internal water reservoir on our planet. Its area amounts to 376,000 square kilometres and it is situated 27.9 metres below the ocean level. The Caspian Sea is a tremendous store of biological resources and is practically the world's only natural reserve of sturgeons. The Caspian shelf is one of the richest oil-bearing regions in the world. According to experts, its prospected oil resources amount to more than 20 bln tons, and gas resources - to about seven trillion cubic metres.
In Soviet times, the Caspian Sea was practically the internal water reservoir within the borders of the USSR, and only in the south it washed the shores of Iran. In the 1970s, for the convenience of conducting geological and prospecting work, the Caspian Sea was divided into territories each belonging to a republican branch of the Soviet Ministry of the Oil Industry.
In accordance with the its legal status, now in force, which rests on the Soviet-Iranian treaties of 1921 and 1940, the Caspian Sea is open for use by all the littoral states all over its full length. Under these treaties the Caspian Sea was proclaimed a Soviet-Iranian sea. It did not have any borders, but each state had its fishing zone of ten miles wide in which it could fish under its national flag. The rest of the Caspian Sea was proclaimed to be a zone of free navigation.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of independent states - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenia - the necessity of working out an international legal status of the Caspian Sea became one of the urgent tasks for the whole Caspian region.
The question of the status for the Caspian Sea appeared at the beginning of 1992 when Iran took the initiative of founding an Organisation of Regional Cooperation between the Caspian Countries. Later, the problem of the status was becoming more and more acute, because it was connected with the problem of ownership of natural, above all energy resources which lie under the bottom of the Caspian Sea.
Since October 1992 there were several multilateral meetings between the Caspian countries. However, they have failed to adopt a final decision so far.
At the present time, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have put forth a common proposal - to divide the bottom of the sea and to make its surface for common use. The positions of these three countries have been reflected in a statement on the principles of cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea and in the treaty on cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan that were signed in January 2001.
Iran insists on the principle of condominium (a common ownership of the sea), and if this is impossible, then the sea should be divided into five equal parts (twenty percent each).
Of late, the position of Turkmenia neared that of Russia - to divide the bottom of the sea, however not on the principle of equal parts, as Iran proposes, but proceeding from the existing state borders.
Russia insists on not to wait for the solution of the main problem - the status of the Caspian Sea - but to start solving urgent problems connected with the biological sphere, nature management, fishing and navigation. For settling the Caspian problem, Russia proposes to set up an independent international body - a Centre for the Strategic Solution of the Caspian Problems. It will be called upon to control the sea's ecology, as well as fishing and navigation on it. It is expected that with time it would be able to turn into a political organisation.
On April 23-24, 2002, a summit of the states on the problem of the Caspian Sea status took place in Ashkhabad. It was attended by Presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenia - Vladimir Putin, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Seid Mohammad Hatami, Geidar Aliyev and Saparmurat Niyazov. They preliminarily agreed upon a number of measures and steps to be taken for their further cooperation not only in determining the legal status of the Caspian Sea but also in other spheres, namely nature protection measures and joint efforts in protecting biological resources.
Vladimir Putin proposed to hold the next summit of the Caspian countries in April 2003 in Teheran. No final declaration was signed.
On May 13, 2002, the Presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan, Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev, signed in Moscow the Protocol to the Agreement between Russia and Kazakhstan on the Division the Part of the Caspian Sea for Carrying out their Sovereign Rights to Using Minerals of July 6, 1998." This document determines the principles and legal basis of the cooperation between the two countries in the sphere of developing the resources of the bottom of the Caspian Sea. It concerns the Kurmangazy, Central and Khvalynskoye deposits that are situated in the northern part of the sea on the middle line, and for a long time they were considered as disputable. The protocol establishes the geographical coordinates of the modified middle line of the delimitation of the bottom in the northern part of the Caspian Sea. In accordance with the signed document, the shares of Russia and Kazakhstan in developing these three deposits will be under the formula of 50:50.
On June 9, 2002, the Russian and Azerbaijan Presidents, Vladimir Putin and Geidar Aliyev, met in Saint Petersburg to discuss an agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan on dividing the bottom of the Caspian Sea.
The agreement has not been signed, though, according to the sides, an accord in principle was achieved. As Russian Vice Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko said, there are exist "some technical differences concerning the wording" of the general text of the agreement; this is connected with "the special status of the Caspian Sea." On July 29-30, 2002, the five-sided special working group on the Caspian Sea at the level of deputy foreign ministers met in Teheran. No working document was signed. However, the heads of the delegations outlined the positions of their states on the problem of the legal status of the Caspian Sea and underscored the necessity of continuing the work within the framework of the sessions of the working group for working out a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea on the basis of consensus.