Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 146

Abkhaz authorities are derailing political talks with Tbilisi, ostensibly in protest against Georgian actions in a July 3 maritime incident and in its wake. On that day, Georgia’s coast guard stopped a Turkish cargo vessel off Pitsunda en route to an Abkhaz port, impounded the ship and its cargo in Poti, and detained the crew of eight. The crew — mostly Turks of Abkhaz descent — were released and deported to Turkey on July 20, except the captain. On July 27, a Poti court sentenced the captain to four years imprisonment for violating Georgia’s territorial waters and international shipping rules. The commercial cargo will be delivered to Abkhazia’s populace as “gift” from Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Tbilisi is acting on the international legal premise that there are no territorial waters or maritime borders, other than the Georgian one in this sector. Georgia will continue to detain ships bound for Abkhazia that trespass Georgia’s territorial waters without permission or otherwise violate international law. This is a universal obligation for states, including Georgia.

The Abkhaz authorities, however, take the position that Abkhazia has territorial waters and a maritime border. On July 23, Abkhaz de facto president Sergei Bagapsh warned that “Abkhaz forces” would sink Georgian ships if they enter Abkhazia’s waters. Abkhaz authorities have abducted 12 Georgians in Abkhaz-controlled territory and offered to release them in a deal for the release of the Turkish captain. After this abduction, it was Bagapsh again who accused Georgia of engaging in “piracy at sea,” which he said was incompatible with holding political talks.

Seemingly in further retaliation, Bagapsh threatened the possible confiscation of property in Abkhazia belonging to ethnic Georgians, presumably in absentia. That property would be inventoried and sold at auctions, he warned. The announcement singled out ethnic Georgians, inferentially suggesting that property belonging to members of other ethnic groups is not subject to such measures.

On July 26, Bagapsh and his visiting South Ossetian counterpart Eduard Kokoiti signed a joint communique insisting that Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetian negotiations must continue “in the framework of existing formats,” and on an equal footing between the central government and Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, respectively. Moreover, “Russia’s peacekeeping and mediating role remains the main guarantor of peace and stability in the Caucasus,” they insisted. The joint communique appears designed to discourage international attempts, however feeble, to transcend those decade-old, Russia-constructed formats.

In a July 23 letter to the UN Security Council, Abkhazia’s self-styled minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Shamba, complained against Georgian seizure of “the few commercial ships bound for Abkhazia,” without mentioning international law in the complaint. This seemed designed as an excuse for Sukhumi’s refusal to attend a UN-brokered meeting with Georgian officials in Tbilisi on the previous day. In the same letter, Shamba called for UN support to the signing of a “peace treaty between Georgia and Abkhazia, to be guaranteed by all participants in the negotiating process.” This old proposal tends to resurface periodically with some variations. It aims to obtain Georgian recognition of Abkhazia’s secession and international recognition of Abkhazia.

The July 22 meeting in Tbilisi was attended by representatives of the UN Secretary General’s Group of Georgia’s Friends, on the UN Observer Mission’s (UNOMIG) premises. Georgia’s chief negotiator on Abkhazia, Irakli Alasania, presented the Georgian side’s draft of a joint Georgian-Abkhaz statement, including provisions on non-resumption of hostilities, security guarantees for returning refugees, and maritime issues. While declining to attend this meeting, the Abkhaz side underscored its allegiance to the “Sochi process” of negotiations, in which Georgia is alone facing a common front of Russia and Abkhazia.

(Imedi TV, Rustavi-2 TV, July 22; Apsynpress, July 23, 26; Kavkasia-Press, July 26, 27; Prime-News, July 27)