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Rising Tensions in the Black Sea , CU Issue 47, September 14, 2009

The shaky ceasefire between Georgia and the Russian-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has been sorely tested on land in recent months. With the withdrawal of OSCE and UN monitors, the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) is the only international body observing the conflict zone – and, unlike the OSCE and UN teams, is unable to enter either region due to Russian vetoes.

But it now looks as if a new theatre of tension has opened up: the sea. On August 24 Georgia’s navy seized a Turkish cargo vessel carrying fuel to Abkhazia. Accusing the ship’s captain of smuggling, a court sentenced him to 24 years in jail, and also locked up the crew (RFE/RL, September 1). Although soon commuted (with the intervention of Turkey’s Foreign Minister), the jail terms indicate just how serious Georgia is about enforcing its naval blockade of Abkhazia (Reuters, September 5).

The response of Abkhazia and its Russian backers was threatening. The de facto Sukhumi government threatened to “destroy” Georgian ships “infringing the sea border of Abkhazia” (BBC, September 2). It also announced that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) would take responsibility for patrolling its coastline, in addition to its role on the Georgian-Abkhaz land border (RIA Novosti, August 28).

These mutual provocations have increased the dangers of a new military confrontation between Russia and Georgia. Similar fears were raised earlier in the year about the situation on land, but conflict was avoided for a number of reasons, which do not apply to the maritime context.

Firstly, the boundaries are greatly different. Despite the torturously plotted and heavily disputed border between Russian and Georgian control, there are at least some clear markers on land. Furthermore, Georgia implicitly accepts the administrative boundaries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and begrudgingly tolerates Russian outposts beyond them. This is not the case at sea.

Secondly, the situation on land does not involve blockade-running. Georgia – and indeed the separatist regions – simply does not allow economic traffic to pass through the border zones. On sea, the obstacles to free passage are much scarcer. To put it another way, one does not see Turkish lorries trying to dodge Georgian police units in a bid to reach South Ossetia.

These geographic issues mean that at sea it is easier for outsiders to get through, and harder to establish where they can be stopped without provoking a serious incursion into what Abkhazia sees as its territorial waters. The risks are compounded by the third difference: the military aspect.

Regular exchanges of gunfire have occurred between Georgia and the rebel regions ever since the war. In a few cases, there have been deaths and injuries: in most, just angry accusations. Out in the Black Sea things are different. An exchange of fire between vessels could lead to serious loss of life. If that life was Russian, it would almost certainly constitute a cassus belli, or at least the justification for Moscow to destroy the remains of the Georgian fleet and coast guard. The dangers involved mean that the threshold for naval clashes is much higher: but maritime clashes remain alarmingly possible.

Without a naval capacity, EUMM is blindsided on the Black Sea. It has requested that the maritime tensions be discussed at the next dialogue between Russia, Georgia, and the two separatist regions held regularly in Geneva. But without any input from international observers, the discussion will easily turn into accusation and counter-accusation.

For EU ships to enter the Black Sea, they would need to pass through the Bosporus, in Turkish waters. Under the Montreux Convention of 1936, access to the Black Sea by non-littoral states is tightly restricted – Russia was not slow in reminding Turkey of these limitations when NATO ships attempted to visit Georgia in the aftermath of last year’s war. Although the EU would almost certainly not send warships, any non-commercial ships from non-littoral states are only allowed in the Black Sea for twenty-one days, which would require continuous rotations.

In any case, the capability of ships to effectively monitor the whole of the Abkhaz Black Sea coast would be very difficult. It is not even clear who would be willing to send suitable vessels. And any deployment would be strongly opposed by Abkhazia, according to Marietta Konig, a researcher from the Institute for Peace Research and Security Studies in Hamburg. The separatists and Russia have barred EUMM from accessing the region’s territory on land: why, asks Konig, “should this be any different to the Abkhaz coast?”

The situation’s real impact may be in relations between Georgia and Turkey. Economic links between the territory and Turkey are strong, particularly since the latter is home to a large Abkhazian diaspora. Although apparently intended to help regional stability, the visit of a Turkish deputy foreign minister to Sukhumi was treated with suspicion in Tbilisi, especially since Ünal Çeviköz reportedly sent signals that Turkey could recognize Abkhazia (Hurriyet, September 10). Ankara’s aims in all of this are mysterious – as Konig points out, Turkish economic relationship with Georgia is still strong, and “it is definitely not in Turkish interests to jeopardise this” through cultivating links with Abkhazia.

The rising tensions in the Black Sea add a new dimension to the struggle between Georgia and the separatists. Military clashes may be avoided – the missing ingredient is a lack of political will in Moscow, which would have the final word in any naval encounter with Georgian ships. But these maritime confrontations pose new problems for Georgia, for Turkey, and for the EU. A strategy to calm the situation is urgently needed: but no-one seems to have the ability, or the desire, to prepare one.

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