Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 119

Russia’s Gazprom has announced its intention to launch exploration for oil and gas in Abkhazia on July 1, apparently offshore in the Black Sea. According to a notice just circulated by Gazprom’s board, the June 27 shareholders’ meeting will discuss plans by Gazprom, its subsidiary Promgaz, and the Abkhaz authorities to conduct a “technical and economic assessment of the resource base in hydrocarbons of the Republic of Abkhazia and the development of proposals regarding the forms of cooperation between OAO Gazprom and the Republic of Abkhazia in the areas of geological exploration work, production of hydrocarbons, supply of gas and gasification.” Promgaz will undertake this work from July 1, 2008, to December 31, 2009, “in accordance with instructions from OAO Gazprom” (“Gazprom: Informational Statement Regarding the Holding of the Annual General Meeting,” received on June 20).

In a parallel move, Abkhaz “president” Sergei Bagapsh’s spokesman has announced intentions by Russia and the secessionist authorities to start flights by “international” airliners between Sokhumi and Russia. The spokesman rejected the position of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), whose European and North Atlantic Office had recently warned, “The ICAO deems unacceptable the initiation of international flights from Sokhumi airport.” Dismissing the ICAO’s position as “irresponsible,” Bagapsh’s spokesman retorted, “flights of airliners between Abkhazia and Russia are suitable to us and no one will be able to oppose this.” He warned international airlines, moreover, against using existing air routes over Abkhazia without Abkhaz permission, “because the republic’s air force uses the airspace” (Apsnypress, June 12).

It is hardly conceivable that the Sokhumi authorities would use such confrontational language toward the ICAO without Moscow’s encouragement. Moreover, the reference to “the republic’s air force,” which does not exist, is a thinly veiled threat that the Russian air force or air defenses might henceforth, by their mere presence, stop unwanted international flights from using those air routes.

These moves are only the latest in the series of predatory Russian moves against Georgian property, internationally recognized commercial interests, and sovereign rights. They follow Russia’s April 16 presidential decree to develop direct official relations with the secessionist authorities and the May 31 seizure of the railroad in Abkhazia, property of Georgian State Railways, by the Russian Defense Ministry’s railroad troops.

Russia’s moves add to Georgia’s legitimate reasons for opposing Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Georgia had ample grounds for this long before the recent developments. Russia had forcibly seized the Georgian customs stations and checkpoints on the Abkhaz and Ossetian sectors of the Russia-Georgia border, in internationally recognized Georgian sovereign territories. Russia has thereby generated rampant illegal trade and trafficking, with region-wide repercussions. In 2006 Russia cut off energy supplies to Georgia in mid-winter. Since 2006, moreover, Russia has imposed a commercial and transport blockade on Georgia as a means of political coercion. Moscow declared those sanctions officially and maintains them outside any framework of international law.

Georgia, like any WTO member, has the right to give or withhold consent to Russia’s accession to the organization. Georgia seeks a negotiated solution and has been engaged in discussions with Russia on two levels: multilaterally, within the WTO’s informal working group on Russia’s bid to join the organization; and bilaterally, in talks with Russia at the technical level.

Prior to Russia’s latest moves, Georgia was demanding a legal solution to the issues of customs stations and checkpoints on the Abkhaz and Ossetian sectors of the Georgia-Russia border. Tbilisi has proposed various forms of sharing control and presence at those points, a goal designated as “legalization” because it would include the legal sovereign, Georgia, in a mutually agreed solution. Russia has stonewalled for years, however. Georgia waited until last year before using its procedural right to relegate the discussions on Russia’s accession to the WTO from official multilateral negotiations to informal, working-group consultations.

Following Russia’s April 16 presidential decree, Georgia has suspended its participation also in the bilateral technical talks with Russia. The Georgian government is asking Russia to reverse that decree as a condition to further bilateral talks on Russia’s WTO accession. Meanwhile, multilateral working-group consultations go on at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters. For the June 16 to June 20 sessions, Georgia’s Economic Development Ministry submitted a list of Russian violations of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and related international norms. For its part, Moscow maintains that WTO rules do not apply to Russia’s moves regarding Georgia (Civil Georgia, Interfax, June 20).

Moscow has thus far concluded bilateral negotiations successfully with more than 60 WTO member countries, that is, elicited their consent to Russia’s membership in the organization. Russia still, however, needs to complete bilateral discussions with Saudi Arabia and with Georgia.

Some business interests in Western Europe and the United States would like their governments to pressure Georgia into giving up and admitting Russia into the WTO regardless. Whether for business or political considerations, some EU and U.S. officials are calling for Russia’s admission to be completed by a certain date, for example, by year’s end. One rationalization is that once inside the WTO, Russia would respect the rules of the game, an argument that ignores Russia’s breach of the rules of all games it has joined with the West, including G-8 “energy partnerships,” among the issues directly related to the WTO’s agenda.

The WTO faces much more than a Georgia-Russia issue: it faces a paramount issue of international economic and political order and international law. It would be illusory for business interests to pursue unilateral relations with a Russia emboldened to set its own rules of the game with impunity in international trade.