Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 122

Having finally settled a six-year-long dispute with Ukraine over dividing the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet (BSF), it looks as though Russia is going to have to repeat the process with Georgia. During the Soviet era, the fleet had a significant presence in Georgia, with a major base at Poti and other facilities in Ochamchire, Sokhumi, and Batumi. In November 1991 former Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia "nationalized" all Soviet military units in Georgia. When he was overthrown his supporters retained control of the region which included Poti, and fleet personnel and facilities sometimes got caught in the conflict between the central government and the rebels. In early 1992 the Russians removed most of the ships from Georgian ports — including the fleet’s submarine force based in Poti. Both Russia and Ukraine rejected Georgia’s claim to a right to share in the division of the fleet. In late 1992 and early 1993 the Georgian and Russian sides seemed to reach an understanding over the fleet by which the BSF would agree to transfer a number of small ships to Georgia while the Georgians would lease the naval facilities at Poti to the Russians. In November 1993 a force of BSF marines landed in Poti and wrested control of the city from Gamsakhurdia’s supporters. In June 1995 BSF marines again landed in Poti to participate in a joint operation with Georgian forces.

The naval issue was dormant until February 1996 when the Georgians renewed their claim for a greater share of the fleet. This time they were supported by Ukraine. The Russians argued then and now that the ships left to Georgia in 1992, along with the value of the naval infrastructure remaining in Georgia, more than compensate Tbilisi for any financial interest it might have had in the Soviet fleet. Both sides renewed their arguments this past weekend — although they disagreed on some of the numbers involved. The commander of the BSF, Adm. Viktor Kravchenko, said that there had been 20 warships and 38 naval auxiliary and support ships in Poti in 1992. The BSF left 2 warships — small amphibious landing ships — and 14 of the other vessels in Poti, along with 24 helicopters and 3 artillery battalions. A Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman, Koba Liklikadze, claimed that, in fact, 28 naval vessels were stationed in Poti in 1992, and that the Russians had taken all but two. As to infrastructure, Liklikadze intimated that the Russians had taken everything that wasn’t nailed down to the floor and that the property remaining was damaged. (Russian agencies, June 22)

While the Russians might be interested in eventually returning to the naval base in Poti, they do not face the same pressures to settle this dispute as they did in the negotiations with Ukraine. Moreover, the Georgian side’s argument that Tbilisi is entitled to the warships stationed in Poti in 1992 is weakened somewhat by the fact that most of these vessels were submarines — a type of ship that the Georgians neither want nor need.

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