The world's largest lake according to Ask Jeeves' encyclopedia, since it has no outlet to the ocean. It's salt water, though. Borders Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran.

Covering an area the size of Japan, the Caspian measures 750 miles north to south and averages 200 miles east-west. Geologists think it connected to the Black Sea millions of years ago.

Whether the Caspian is a lake or a proper sea has come under massive dispute since the Soviet Union broke apart. The thing is, if it's a lake, then each nation owns only the portion of the Caspian that's closest to it. If it's a sea, then laws regarding international waters apply.

Why does it matter? Because there's oil down there.

Things used to be simple with the Caspian: Russia claimed it in 1854, and that was that. In 1954, they gave 11 percent of the Sea to Iran, the only other neighboring country. Things were still simple.

But now, the discovery of oil has created legal tangle, as all five nations are scrambling to provide the rhetoric that gives them a better chunk of the bounty. For example, Kazakhstan is calling the Caspian an "enclosed sea," meaning the top of the water would be an international sea, but the ground underneath would be treated as a lake. Russia, having discovered oil near its border, is agreeing with that assessment. Meanwhile, Western lawyers have plunged happily into the fray, using billable hours to dig up arguments from all manner of treaties and maps drawn up during the century.

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, went ahead with an oil deal in 1994, giving BP the rights to drill in the (allegedly) Azerbaijanian part of the sea. Iran very recently (July 2001) got testy about that, sending a military patrol boat to force BP research vessel Geofizik-3 to stop its work. Turkmenistan countered by laying its own claim to the disputed area.

Turkmenistan president Saparmurat Niyazov has invited the other countries to a summit in October 2001 to discuss the whole mess.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2001

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