Gulnara Mamedzade: "Caspian issue shouldn't remain on periphery of Russian foreign policy"
On March 14, meeting of the Caspian expert club titled "Friendship Strengthened by Regions" was held in Astrakhan. Participants of this event, organized by the Russian North-South Political Science Center, the Caspian-Eurasia Center for International and Socio-Political Studies, the Caspian Expert Club and the Trend News Agency, discussed topical aspects of cooperation and regional integration of the Caspian states. On the sidelines of this event, editor of the Caspian Vestnik portal interviewed Azerbaijani expert, head of the Caspian Expert Club, Gulnara Mamedzade.
- When it comes to Caspian region, the biggest news of recent years was signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. Half a year passed since that happened. What changes have occurred in the region during this time?
- If you're talking about how much progress did Caspian states make in implementation of the Convention, then changes aren't that significant so far, just like the work in five-sided format. Or maybe we don't know enough about this work. However, all states continue to work to get access to foreign markets. We may get better understanding of this topic at the economic summit in Turkmenistan later this year. By the way, over the past six months, Turkmenistan has shown increased activity in foreign policy direction in order to attract investments for construction of infrastructure, further production and transportation of Caspian hydrocarbons. Implementation of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline project became much more realistic thanks to the Convention, and the same can be said about Ashgabat's chances to succeed in negotiations with investors, primarily Western investors. This is proved by number of events held by Turkmenistan with participation of American and European partners.
The topic of Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, designed to connect China and Central Asia to European countries through the Caspian Sea and the territory of Caspian states, was discussed later in Baku, which is the second key point of this corridor. In other words, negotiations in this direction are continuing. And those countries that could oppose this project now show some restraint in their statements. Due to current realities, approaches constantly change, since every transnational project creates a mass of derivatives and additional opportunities for almost all interested parties. Overall, there are a lot of topics on regional agenda. Many projects related to development of the transport and energy potential of the Caspian Sea, which were discussed at the Baku, Astrakhan and Aktau summits, are gradually implemented.
Right now it's important to emphasize that Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan have ratified the Convention. The first meeting of the High Level Working Group on the Caspian Sea Issues was held in Baku in February of 2019, the next meeting is going to be held in April in Kazakhstan. So all sides continue to work on to move forward. This intergovernmental cooperation is certainly important and necessary, but so far no noticeable joint efforts have been in this direction have been achieved. USA and the EU are making progress on various projects thanks to their think tanks. Western countries' governments often depend on experts. It's also important for Caspian countries to create their own expert-informational pool for the region.
During the meeting of the Caspian Expert Club held in Astrakhan, very useful proposals were presented, including those related to creation of the Caspian integration structure, possibly the Caspian Economic Cooperation Organization. Moreover, experts proposed to prepare the “White Book” - a concept of Caspian region's development. Large resources, projects and investments are focused in the Caspian region. Interest in the region will countinue to grow, agenda will be updated. Right now certain provisions of the Convention related to security issues may require specific additions. What's really important is that effectiveness of the Caspian integration process depends on efforts of the Russian Federation. Russia will be active in this direction, which means that this process has every chance to succeed. If Moscow will keep the Caspian Sea topic at the periphery of its interests, then regional configuration can seriously change and may even include participation of non-regional countries.
- The Convention on Legal Status of the Caspian Sea raised issue of delimiting seabed to the level of two-way and three-way agreements. At the last meeting between presidents of Iran and Azerbaijan in Baku, both sides agreed to jointly develop a number of controversial fields in the Caspian region. How implementation of these important agreements will affect Caspian region? Are there positive signs in this issue in relations between Baku and Ashgabat?
- It's very difficult to comment on these issues due to lack of information. Information of this nature, as well as real understanding of the current state of affairs, are within competence of corresponding state structures. What we can see is that there's an attempt to reach consensus in order to resolve Caspian problems, both at the level of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan regarding the Serdar-Kapaz gas field, and in Azerbaijan’s dialogue with Iran on the Sardar-Dzhangal oil field. Signing of this Convention is what helped to deal with these conflicts. Now search for compromise is easy thanks to this dialogue. It may be long and complicated, but there are no longer any dangerous incidents in the Caspian Sea, which occured in the past.
All sides understand that right now isn't the time to hold on to conflicts that have no solution, it's time to get all possible benefits at the level of two to three to five-sided cooperation in the Caspian region. That's what we can actually see. So this process is pretty positive, even if many steps are taken for security reasons. In addition, parties are involved in joint projects, including for Trans-Caspian project (Ashgabat and Baku) and the North-South corridor (Baku and Tehran).
- A significant event took place in Iran on March 6 - the Qazvin-Rasht railway, part of the North-South corridor, was launched. On March 9 in Tehran, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov discussed construction of the final section of the corridor - Resht-Astara route - with Iranian president. What do you think about implementation of this project? What role will it play in development of situation in the region?
- This event is really significant, since the Qazvin-Rasht railway is an important section of one of the key regional projects - the North-South corridor. Implementation of this project will connect railway systems of Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan, which is of great economic and political importance, especially in the framework of Caspian regional integration. Baku, as one of the investors in this project, is interested in completion of the Qazvin-Rasht-Astara railway, a key section of the North-South international transport corridor, which will make it possible to connect railway infrastructures of the Caspian countries.
North-South is increasing importance of the Caspian region as a future center of new transport infrastructure that will connect Europe and Asia, as well as strengthens geopolitical positions of Moscow, Tehran and Baku. Russia and Iran require strategic economic shields capable of minimizing the US sanctions' pressure. Azerbaijan is also increasing its importance as logistics hub and is building solid economic foundation for relations with leading regional centers of power that have influence on the Karabakh conflict settlement, among other things.
- Recently Russia established the post of president's special representative on humanitarian and economic cooperation with Caspian states. How do you assess current level of Caspian cultural and humanitarian cooperation? What projects in this area could contribute to deepening of cultural relations between countries of the region?
- Any attention to Caspian region from Russia is very important, since this direction should not remain on the periphery of Russia's foreign policy. Especially after the Convention was signed. As far as cultural and humanitarian cooperation is concerned, there's an extremely favorable background for it, which is facilitated by geography, historical ties and traditions. And when necessary logistics will finally exist, it will simplify mutual visits, tourism and mutual cultural enrichment.