Caspian Energy Geopolitics - Atahan Tümer

The Caspian Sea, the largest salt lake globally, has been the subject of discussions about whether it is a lake or a sea for many years. This controversial area, which contains many energy reserves, is of great importance for the region. According to the estimation of the US Energy Information Office in 2012, there are 48 billion barrels of oil and 8.3 trillion m3 natural gas deposits in the region. The Caspian Sea can help us understand the region’s energy geopolitics. All the coastal countries have claimed and struggled for many years to take better advantage of the Caspian Sea. Negotiations had been held for many years about the Caspian Sea. The Caspian Sea was opened to use in 2018 when five coastal countries (Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan) reached an agreement on the Caspian Sea’s legal status.

At this point, how we will define the Caspian Sea is a big mystery. The debate about whether it is a sea or a lake is mostly shaped around the economic interests of countries with coasts. Before we start talking about the countries in the region, we should point out that if this water body is in a lake’s status, it is shared equally by all countries on the coast. However, if its status is considered the sea, the countries in the region share this region’s resources compared to their coasts to the sea.

Countries like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, which have rich oil deposits on their coastal borders, claim that this deposit is a sea. The common point of these countries is that they have gained independence after the Soviet Union’s dissolution and do not have sufficient equipment and investment power to extract their energy resources. Besides, the fact that they do not have this equipment makes the region an investment focus of energy companies. We all know that the Central Asian countries do not have developed industry and suffer economically after the Soviets collapsed. Therefore, these countries need the oil income they will obtain from the Caspian Sea to sustain their economic growth. For these countries whose economies are mostly dependent on natural resources, the energy resources in the region must participate in their economies. From this point of view, the importance of the natural resources that have been discovered or to be discovered in the economy of these countries makes the Caspian Sea vital for these countries.

On the other hand, we can easily guess the common point of Russia and Iran, who argue that this body of water is a lake when we understand the first group’s motivation: They do not have rich natural resources in their coastal borders. These two countries aimed to prevent Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, which have rich oil and natural gas deposits on their coasts, from obtaining and using the region’s resources alone. As we mentioned above, if it were accepted as a lake, all of the natural resources in the Caspian Sea would be shared in common. At this point, we can understand that these countries have the motivation to take advantage of the resources that other countries have. Russia, which completely controlled the energy resources in the region during the Soviet Union period, lost some of its power in the region after its independence in the region. We can also evaluate Russia’s actions in this region to obtain the big brother role that dominates the region.

Another motivation of Russia is to prevent Turkmenistan from emerging as an alternative to itself by selling Turkmenistan natural gas to Europe and Azerbaijan. As we mentioned earlier, we can understand that Russia does not want to lose its energy supplier role, which acts almost as a monopoly on Europe. Azerbaijan distributes most of its national resources via Turkey. Possible participation of Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan - Georgia - Turkey group may threaten Russia in economic terms. However, we must consider the benefits Turkey may get with the participation of Turkmenistan. Turkey is an important country, geopolitically. Turkey has been serving as a bridge for transferring energy from the east to the west for years. Turkmenistan’s possible participation in that line will contribute to Turkey’s geopolitical importance. At this point, establishing good relations with countries in Central Asia is crucial. Possible energy projects that Turkey’s leadership may construct are likely to lead to new opportunities for the countries in the region. There is no doubt that every country that will participate in these projects will benefit.

In 2018, the countries that came together in Aktau, Kazakhstan, reached an agreement after many negotiations on the Caspian Sea’s legal status. The agreement accepts the Caspian Sea as a sea, and countries with a coast get a share from the region according to their geographical location and the length of the coast they have. This agreement is a positive agreement for Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Another striking point in this agreement is the prohibition of the presence of foreign troops in the region. It is very meaningful to prevent the forces from outside the region from gaining power in the region. Although it has not solved all the region’s problems, it is obvious that the agreement has reduced the tension developing in the region due to the Caspian Sea. It is not difficult to predict that the region will come to the agenda again in the coming years due to its energy.

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