Caspian Oil Feud

Ashgabat ups the ante in its Caspian Sea oilfield dispute with Azerbaijan

Caspian Oil Feud

Ashgabat ups the ante in its Caspian Sea oilfield dispute with Azerbaijan

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Turkmenistan is stepping up its claim on Caspian oil fields operated by Azerbaijan, in a dispute that has been festering ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union a decade ago.

Ashgabat is flexing its military muscle to pressure Baku into handing over two disputed fields. It has issued dark warnings of 'unexpected consequnces' if the Azeri leadership refuses to agree to its demands.

During the communist era, the Caspian was governed by Moscow and Tehran. But since the demise of the USSR, five littoral states - Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan - have periodically clashed over the division of the mineral rich waters.

Latest talks on the dispute between Baku and Ashgabat broke up on July 31 when the Azeri deputy prime minister, Abbas Abbasov, came away from meetings in the Turkmen capital, saying negotiations had been fruitless.

Turkmenistan has pursued a highly individualist path since it gained independence from Moscow in 1991. It declared itself a neutral state building 'new and different relations' with other nations of the old Soviet Union.

The oil dispute has blown up over two fields - called the Khazar and Osman in Turkmen, and the Azeri and Chirag in Azeri. Baku operates both with the general approval of the international community.

The quarrel took a new and curious twist in June when Turkmenistan withdrew its embassy from Baku, relocating the mission in Ashgabat. The move caused bewilderment around the region.

The transfer was attributed by Turkmen officials to "temporary financial difficulties", an excuse hard to accept from a nation which by Central Asian standards enjoys relative prosperity.

More worryingly, Turkmenstan later sent a diplomatic note to Azerbaijan, complaining about 'illegal' activities in the Caspian Sea. The foreign relations committee of the Azeri parliament suggested that all disagreements between the two Turkish-speaking countries could be resolved with "dialogue, exchange of opinions and constructive collaboration".

The oil dispute first flared in May, 1997, when President Saparmurat Niazov met Azeri president Heidar Aliev in Ashgabat declared that the two disputed fields clearly belonged to Turkmenistan. At that time, Baku had already signed contracts with foreign companies to begin exploiting them.

On July 4 that same year Moscow and Baku signed another such deal. The next day, the Turkmen foreign ministry issued a strong protest and Moscow - among the foreign nations which recognises Azeri rights to the oil - backed out of the agreement.

Bad feelings continued to fester between Baku and Ashgabat. Recently, Turkmenistan suggested international mediation to resolve the problem but Baku brushed the idea aside. Turkmenistan remained determined to get its own way.

A source in the Turkmen leadership told Interfax news agency that harsh measures would be taken by Ashgabat if agreement failed to materialise. By that time, Turkmenistan was already buying naval craft saying it wanted to deter infiltrators across its sea borders.

A declaration by the Turkmen foreign ministry said that while dialogue on the status of the Caspian oil fields continues, any continued exploitation of them would lead to a bad political climate and even 'unexpected consequences'.

Few commentators think Turkmenistan would seize the fields by military force even though recent reports suggest it has purchased 20 naval vessels of the 'Grif' and 'Kalkan' class.

In addition, the Turkmen security forces have received a patrol vessel of the well-known 'Point Jackson' type following cooperation with the United States defence ministry. Its crew underwent training in Florida. President Niazov recently conducted a conspicuous military review of his newly bolstered forces

Despite all this, Ashgabat is still trying to show a friendly face towards Baku. The shift of the Turkmen embassy was described in mild, non-belligerent terms. But it seems Turkmenistan is clearly hoping that exhibition of military muscle will impel Azerbaijan to back down.

A new round of talks is expected to take place in October but international energy experts hold out little hope for a resolution if the Caspian states maintain current bargaining postures.

Nazik Ataeva is a pseudonym of a journalist from Turkmenistan

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