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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It All Comes Down to How You Define 'Sea'

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- It's a time-honored conundrum that has set the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea at odds since the Soviet Union's demise: Is it a sea or a lake?

Surely it's just a question of semantics, you might think. Well no, it isn't, and the question has seen a grand falling-out between the formerly friendly neighbors.

On Tuesday, the foreign ministers of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran meet in Moscow to try to answer this age-old riddle for once and for all.

What it boils down to is oil, and the abundant reserves that lie beneath the sea (or should that be lake?) bed. If the Caspian were a lake, its riches would be split evenly between the five coastal states. As a sea, however, its bottom is divided up according to the length of each country's coastline.

Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are very happy with the current "sea" definition. But Iran and Turkmenistan, with shorter coastlines, are pushing for the Caspian's status to be changed.

In the old days, of course, it didn't matter, as four of the five Caspian states were part of the Soviet Union, and the fifth got on famously with Moscow. But now that it's each to his own, the gloves are off.

I doubt they'll come to any sort of agreement this week. They've been arguing the point for the last 10 years without any sign of a breakthrough, and now that the full extent of the Caspian's oil reserves has come to light, everyone wants to get his hands on them.

The simmering row erupted three years ago when Iranian marine guards fired at an Azeri oil exploration ship in the southern sector of the Caspian. Tehran said the ship was trespassing in its territorial waters, and all work on the disputed oil field has now been halted.

There's even a dispute over what the Caspian should be called, and when Azerbaijan's late leader, Haidar Aliyev, went to Tehran to meet President Khatami, the two practically came to blows over what to call it.

As for the Turkmens, it's anyone's guess what line they will take. I read this week that Sapamurat Niyazov, the eccentric leader of Turkmenistan, has had an entire village leveled because it obscured his view of a showpiece mosque.

In the past, Niyazov -- or Turkmenbashi, as he likes to be called, a name that means Father of All the Turkmens -- has renamed the days of the week in honor of members of his family. Reclassifying a sea as a lake would be a mere trifle in his book.

With none of the sides likely to concede an inch, it looks like the sea versus lake show is one that will run and run.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.