The Caspian Basin has emerged in recent years as a major focus of international affairs for a combination of political, economic, and geostrategic reasons. In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union's dissolution in the early 1990s the region's newly independent states were overshadowed by Russia and attracted little Western and U.S. attention. But over the past several years this region has attracted growing attention from Western policymakers and scholars, as well as the media and the private sector. One of the main reasons for this new focus on the Caspian is its sizable energy reserves. In addition to its potential as a significant oil producer, however, it is also the Caspian's geostrategic location, its diverse mix of ethnic groups, and its unsettled intrastate and interstate conflicts that make it both an enticing and challenging region.
In May 1999, CISAC's Project on Ethnic Conflict and Conflict Management in the Former Soviet Union convened an international conference to examine emerging geopolitical issues of the Caspian Basin region. Scholars, policymakers, and energy executives from around the world gathered to examine the sometimes contending interests, both political and economic, focused on the region, and to seek to develop a comprehensive approach for enhancing political and economic development, mitigating and resolving conflicts, and promoting security and stability in the region. Panelists examined conflicting political and economic approaches to the region and explored strategies for energy development that might facilitate regional economic growth and democratization. They also offered diverse views about whether energy development could promote regional cooperation and integration or was likely to exacerbate existing conflicts.
The conference was part of the Project on Ethnic Conflict's ongoing activities in the Caspian region. Project director Gail Lapidus and others at CISAC have been working closely with scholars and policymakers in the region for a number of years on issues of nationalism, conflict resolution, and regional security. One of the project's central goals has been to encourage and facilitate regional cooperation on a broad range of humanitarian, economic, and political issues. In support of that objective, the project has engaged in joint efforts with key political actors in the region in attempts to develop fresh approaches to conflict management and to construct new regional security arrangements.