Caspian Sea

Caspian Sea
   The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest enclosed body of water, technically categorizing it as a lake. The sea is intercontinental in nature, separating Europe from Asia, with a surface area of 371,000 square kilometers and a maximum depth of 1,025 meters. It is one-third as salty as ocean water and is home to a large sturgeon population, thus providing much of the world’s caviar haul. The Volga River empties into the Caspian, consequently serving as a key connection to Russia’s shipping and shipbuilding industries. During much of the 20th century, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) controlled most of the coastline, with Iran being the only other country along the basin. However, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly independent states of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan became Caspian states, though the Russian Federation retains a significant portion of the coastline. The Russian regions washed by the sea include Astrakhan, Kalmykiya, and Dagestan, which taken together share a 685-kilometer coastline. The Caspian basin is rich in hydrocarbons, and one of the first major oil fields is near Baku.
   In the post-Soviet period, Azerbaijan has sought to free itself from Russian domination of its export routes for Caspian oil, as well as natural gas from its newly tapped Shah Deniz field. The United States-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which transports Azeri oil to the Mediterranean, is the most obvious outgrowth of this strategy. The builders of the more recent Nabucco pipeline similarly seek to circumvent Russian control of transshipment routes. Iranian-Soviet and post-Soviet agreements on the division of energy and fishing rights have complicated relations between the littoral states for decades. During the Cold War, Iran and the USSR divided the sea into two sectors and shared the fishing resources. After 1991, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan argued that they were not parties to the treaty and claimed rights over what they saw as their own territorial waters. Russia, the dominant power in the region, has pushed for a sectoral division of the seabed, with surface resources shared among the littoral states. While this is now the de facto scheme for division of the Caspian, some disputes—particularly between Baku and Tehran—linger.
   A 2009 presidential summit between Iran and Kazakhstan underscored that, while some steps have been made toward a final solution, the status of territorial division is still ambiguous. In terms of energy exports, Russia—which commands older pipeline routes—has sought to block any new, westward-bound trans-Caspian pipeline on environmental grounds. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, however, are interested in diversifying their export routes and escaping Russia’s current bottleneck on transshipment to the energy-hungry European Union. Kazakhstan has also backed the building of a canal linking the Caspian to the Black Sea, thus opening maritime routes for the Central Asian nation, as well as landlocked Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia became the dominant military power in the basin, keeping most of the assets for its own navy. Turkmenistan’s plans to develop a major new metropolis at the port city of Türkmenbaşy is expected to increase that country’s profile as a Caspian state. Kazakhstan’s development of the Tengiz oil field on the northeastern shore of the Caspian, one of the largest discoveries in recent history, is also an important development for the future of the basin.
   See also Foreign relations; Pollution.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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