Wild and Wealthy: the Past and Future of the Caspian Sea

I have been advertised that the chief trade of Persia is into Syria, and so transported into the Levant Sea [Mediterranean]. The few ships upon the Caspian Seas, the want of mart and port towns, the poverty of the people and the ice, maketh that trade not.

So commented Anthony Jenkinson, intrepid representative of the English Muscovy Company during his epic journey through Russia and Central Asia in 1558-1560.

In search of new trading partners and an overland route to the wealth of China, Jenkinson’s explorations were not only a remarkable feat of adventurism but they also allowed for some of the first English-language accounts of a region still oft-overlooked thanks to their inclusion in Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation.

The land encompassing the Caspian Sea – a still controversial designation for this massive landlocked body of water – rarely makes the headlines, only momentarily garnering attention for a recent agreement hashed out Aktau between Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran.

The five heads of state celebrate the deal in Aktau

After decades of dispute, the five littoral states bordering the Caspian have agreed to share its resources and work together to prevent outside powers from setting up military bases on its shores. Rich in oil and gas, it is a prudent step to douse this particular geopolitical flame.

When Jenkinson – a native of the quiet Leicestershire town of Market Harborough – travelled the region in the mid-1500s, he encountered a wild land of nomads and bandits, whose conceptions of commerce differed widely from his own ‘sophisticated’ notion.

From the Caspian Sea unto the castle of Sellizure aforesaid, and all the countries about the said sea, the people live without town or habitation in the wild fields, removing from one place to another in great companies with their cattle, whereof they have great store, as camels, horses, and sheep both tame and wild.

Yet if the Caspian of the 16th century was beyond his comprehension, imagine what the merchant would think of today’s Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, with its sparkling modern facades and nouveau-riche adornments.

Baku’s elite status has been confirmed by its hosting of a grand prix on the Formula 1 calendar

Not that the oil wealth of the Sea was completely unknown to Jenkinson’s contemporaries. Thomas Bannister and Jeffrey Duckett (also English traders) commented that the area was:

a strange thing to behold, for there issueth out of the ground a marvelous quantity of oil, which serveth all the country to burn in their houses. This oil is black and is called nefte. There is also by the town of Baku, another kind of oil which is white [petroleum] and very precious.

Indeed the modern petroleum industry threatens to wreak environmental disaster on the Caspian, with oil run-off and chemical disposal poisoning its waters at an alarming rate. If the five signatories do not take action soon, then the Caspian threatens to follow the Aral Sea into ecological oblivion.

Oil wells near Baku: with great wealth comes environmental responsibility

Jenkinson thought that the Aral ran into the Caspian, yet today the former is barely recognisable as a water body, its desiccated plains more reminiscent of a desert.

What was, and remains, true about his observations, however, is the ‘wildness’ of the Caspian. Beyond the oil wealth there is impoverishment and turmoil. Iran sits on the Sea’s southern border, scheming to bend the region to its will. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan remain mired in post-Soviet decay to the east, whilst to the north is the restive Russian province of Dagestan, long a source of discontent that Moscow has sought to quell.

This Astracan is the furthest hold that this Emperor of Russia hath conquered of the Tartars towards the Caspian Sea, which he keepeth very strong, sending thither every year provisions of men and victuals, and timber to build the castle.

Jenkinson could almost be writing about Vladimir Putin and his determination to ensure the loyalty of his southern lands (many Muslim-dominated), albeit substituting the castles for tanks and modern artillery.

A map based on Jenkinson’s descriptions: note the misshapen Caspian

Central Asia is imbued with huge economic and political potential, yet few seem to realise it. A massive disparity in wealth and opportunity exists between the elite and the citizenship, whose ambitions have been thwarted by dictatorial and repressive regimes.

Whether the ground-breaking achievement of this month will make a difference to the lives of ordinary citizens remains to be seen. Will the state-level sharing trickle down to the poor and needy? Without international attention, their governments may not see the immediate value in concession. A desire to protect the Caspian’s precious sturgeon population (the caviar conduit) may be a stronger incentive to clean-up the lake than the wants of those who rely on its waters for sustenance.

Successful fisherman in the Caspian Sea in 1949, before the oil boom

On his return across the Caspian from the fabled Silk Road town of Bukhara, Jenkinson and his men were buffeted by a storm during which they were:

driven far into the sea, and had much ado to keep our bark from sinking, the billow was so great: but at the last, having fair weather, we took the sun, and knowing how the land lay from us, we fell with the river Iaic, according to our desire, whereof the Tartars were very glad, fearing that we should have been driven to the coast of Persia, whose people were unto them great enemies.

With the agreement of Aktau, it should no longer matter which way the winds blow.

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Putin & Abe Unlikely to Resolve Kuril Dispute: sovereignty, nationalism and history combine for toxic mix

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last Friday, with the ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands set to dominate proceedings...at least from the media’s point of view.

The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very 'constructively'
The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very ‘constructively’

No agreement over the islands was expected to arise from the summit, hampering the potential for the signing of a peace treaty to formally end hostilities between the two nations, an issue left unresolved since World War Two (WWII).

Stretching some 750 miles between the southern tip of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the north-eastern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the Kurils are thought to have first been settled by the indigenous Ainu people. Coming under semi-administrative control of the Japanese during the Edo period, the only economic activity of note relating to the islands was fishing and, later, whaling.

The changing borders of the Kuril Islands
The changing borders of the Kuril Islands

In the 19th century, Russia lay claim to the Kurils and in 1855 the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was signed giving Japan control over the southernmost islands and Russia over the northern ones. In 1875 this was overwritten by the Treaty of St Petersburg which gave full control to the Japanese in return for their relinquishing of any claims to Sakhalin, which came under sole Russian authority.

The Japanese retained control over the Kuril Islands until towards the end of WWII when, with their defeat almost secured, the Soviet Union finally entered the war in the Pacific Theater. Stalin had avoided opening up a second major front during the preceding years due to the ferocity of the fighting during the repulsion of the Nazi invasion. Despite frequent attempts by the Allied forces – particularly the Chinese whose very existence was threatened by Tokyo’s expansionist foreign policy – Stalin had no intention of spreading his forces too widely. He was, however, a ruthless opportunist and Japan’s capitulation offered the prospect of new territory in the Far East.

In 1946, the Soviet authorities expelled the approximately 17,000 Japanese citizens from the Kurils and resettled them with Russians. Despite vociferous protests ever since, the Tokyo administration has never regained any of the islands, which continue to give Russia a strategic foothold on the very threshold of Japanese territory.

Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians
Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians

Commensurate with his rather assertive foreign policy, Putin has in recent years ordered the strengthening of Russia’s military presence on the Kurils, including the construction of new operations bases and missile defence sites. This has understandably not been received with fanfare in Tokyo, particularly given the nationalist tendencies of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and of Abe himself. With the Prime Minister intent on creating a more ‘normal’ Japanese foreign policy – essentially allowing Japan to take part in more than just self-defence operations, as prescribed by its post-WWII constitution – territorial disputes such as this remain a potential flashpoint.

Both the East China Sea and, more significantly, the South China Sea have received extensive press attention for the myriad arguments over sovereignty and economic rights, with the Chinese effectively seizing control of the latter with their land reclamation projects and military re-alignment. The Kuril Islands receive less coverage, yet the failure to reach any long-term resolution on the dispute means that it too is a potential cause for inadvertent conflict between the some of the world’s superpowers.

America naturally comes into the equation. It was Roosevelt whose determination to encourage the Soviets to enter the Pacific War led to a promise at the Yalta Conference that Stalin would receive the Kuril Islands. However, when it came to signing the Treaty of San Francisco to secure a lasting peace between Japan and the wartime Allies, Stalin accused the Americans of reneging on their promise at Yalta to recognise Soviet sovereignty over the Kurils. For their part, the Americans stated that the agreement at Yalta only related to the northern Kuril Islands, not the four large southern islands that the Japanese continue to claim. The lasting historical enmity over this supposed duplicity – in addition to Cold War antagonisms – has only increased Soviet obstinacy on the Kuril issue.

With Russia and China both militarising some of the most contentious territorial disputes in the Pacific, and refusing to even acknowledge any counter-arguments to their stated positions, the prospect for an ‘incident’ to occur between two major powers cannot be overlooked. Given the nature of geostrategic power politics in the region, such an incident would likely involve more than the two belligerents.

The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential
The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential

Nationalist tension is undoubtedly high and it is fuelled by history. It would be comforting to think that a meeting between two of the most powerful heads of state may lead to an easing of diplomatic anxiety, yet the reality is more sombre.

Analysts continue to assess the most likely source of a future war between great powers. They would do well to start by looking at the Pacific, a region often overshadowed by the disasters of the Middle East but with a history of violence that is almost comparable.