Rising tensions between Russia and Georgia over shipping rights to a breakaway Georgian region have opened a potential new theater for conflict between the countries, a little more than a year after they went to war.
Georgia’s coast guard has commandeered five merchant vessels from various countries this year for violating Georgian laws on shipping to a Black Sea port in Abkhazia, the breakaway region. Last week, a Georgian court sentenced the captain of a Turkish cargo ship to 24 years in prison for border violations, though he was quickly released at Turkey’s behest.
Russia has condemned the actions and has pledged coast guard support to Abkhazia’s separatist government.
“The actions of the Georgian leadership violate international maritime laws and are an attempt to impose a sea blockade on Abkhazia,” Andrei Nesterenko, a spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said last week. “They risk aggravating the military and political situation in the region and could result in serious armed incidents.”
By tightening control over its corner of the Black Sea, Georgia appears to be trying to reassert some measure of authority over Abkhazia, since it effectively lost control over the region and another breakaway enclave, South Ossetia, after last year’s war.
“Georgia has a very limited set of actions to get back Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” said Sergei Konoplyov, director of the Black Sea Security Program at Harvard University. “They are using all possible means they have.”
And Russia, which invaded Georgia, occupying large sections of Georgian territory, after Georgia attacked South Ossetia last August, has ample reason to resist, he said.
Abkhazia, a verdant strip of subtropical and mountainous land, lies a short drive away from the Russian city of Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic games. Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia shortly after the August war. It now maintains a large troop presence in both territories and has vowed to protect the regions should Georgia try to take them back.
But, aside from Russia, only Nicaragua has recognized the two regions’ independence, and both technically remain subject to Georgian laws and border regulations.
On these grounds, Georgia’s coast guard boarded a Turkish cargo ship called the Buket on August 15, commandeering the ship, its crew and some $2.4 million worth of fuel deliveries on the suspicion that they were destined for Abkhazia’s port city of Sukhumi. A Georgian court ruled that the ship had entered occupied territory, having docked in Abkhazia at least three times in the past year, and sentenced the captain, Mehmet Ozturk, to 24 years in prison.
“Georgia has declared the port of Sukhumi closed for all ships, Georgian and foreign,” said Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for Georgia’s Interior Ministry. “All the ships’ captains and the owners know that it is illegal to sail to the port of Sukhumi, except for exceptional situations and with the consent of the government of Georgia.”
Mr. Ozturk was released from prison and flew to Turkey on Wednesday, only after Turkey’s foreign minister personally negotiated his release with Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Georgia will put the ship and its cargo up for auction as it has with all other ships impounded this year, said Beso Shengelia, Georgia’s coast guard chief.
The ship’s Turkish owner, Densa Tanker Management, Ltd., paid $60,000 in fines, said Kursat Ozturk, the company’s operations manager. He denied that his company broke any laws, and said Georgian officials seized the ship in international waters. Nevertheless, he said his company would not be making any deliveries to Abkhazia in the near future.
Abkhazia has few trading partners beyond Russia, and its separatist authorities have responded with outrage over the seizures, accusing Georgia of piracy.
“I have issued an order to our navy to destroy Georgian ships illegally crossing Abkhazia’s marine border,” Abkhazia’s de facto president, Sergei Bagapsh, told the Interfax news agency in a statement last week. “This step has been prompted by unending piracy on Georgia’s part.”
Georgian officials, including Mr. Utiashvili, said Abkhazia’s separatists lacked the naval capacity to follow through on the threat. “If something happened, this would be the Russians,” Mr. Utiashvili said.
The confrontation has unnerved international observers, including the European Union observer mission to Georgia, the only international body with monitors still present in the region. The mission said in a statement this month that it was “concerned” about the threats to employ force in the region.
Representatives from the European Union mission presided over a meeting of Abkhaz and Georgian officials on Tuesday in part to discuss the tensions over Black Sea shipping to Abkhazia. No agreement was reached.
The Abkhaz foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, said in a telephone interview that he doubted the European Union-backed negotiations could guarantee security. Rather, he said, Abkhaz forces would work with Russian border control units and employ “all measures” to prevent Georgian interference in sea trade with Abkhazia.
“These are provocative acts at sea that could have military consequences,” he said.