The plight of the Turkish captain of a tanker intercepted by Georgian authorities while carrying goods en route to Abkhazia highlighted the dilemmas of Turkey’s position on the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict.
Since the war last August, Georgia has blockaded the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and has intercepted various ships carrying Turkish goods. In the latest incident, a vessel transporting fuel to Abkhazia was captured by the Georgian coastguard on August 17. Following the seizure, the Georgian authorities took the captains, one Turkish and the other Azeri, into custody. On August 31, a Georgian court sentenced them to 24 years in prison. The ship was confiscated and brought to Batumi port to be sold in an auction (Today’s Zaman, September 6).
Growing concerns over the fate of the Turkish captain generated domestic pressure on the government to free him, which prompted the involvement of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The Turkish foreign ministry announced that Davutoglu would visit Tbilisi and that the government would do everything possible to secure the release of the captain. Meanwhile, on September 4, the shipping company paid a fee, and it was announced that an appeals court would reconsider the case. Davutoglu visited Tbilisi on September 7-8, and a Georgian court released the Turkish captain on September 8 (Anadolu Ajansi, September 8).
The case highlighted tensions caused by similar practices by the Georgian authorities. Georgia has been seizing Turkish ships destined for Abkhazia, and in the past decade over sixty ships have been captured. Even prior to the latest crisis, representatives of Turkish exporters and Caucasian diaspora groups in Turkey raised concerns that the Turkish government was too complicit toward the "bullying" of the Georgian authorities.
Ahmet Hamdi Gurdogan, the head of the exporters association in the Black Sea region, advanced several criticisms of Tbilisi (www.tekilhaber.com, August 25). First, he maintained that although Georgia claims to block all the trade routes to Abkhazia, Georgian coastal patrols cannot do anything against vessels carrying the Russian flag en route to Abkhazia. In a related charge, he argued that the Georgian patrol boats captured the Turkish ships in international waters, even in some cases immediately after they leave Turkish territorial waters. Therefore, Turkish exporters expect the government to flex its muscles, yet considering that Turkey supports Georgia’s territorial integrity and the Georgian embargo in place, the government might do little to stop the interception of Turkish ships in Georgian waters. Nonetheless, during his press briefing on the recent case, a spokesman for the foreign ministry expressed Ankara’s concern that some of the seizures might have taken place in international waters, and Georgia’s actions may violate international maritime laws (www.denizhaber.com, September 2).
Turkish exporters also complain that the Georgians have turned such practices into an undeclared "piracy" in the Black Sea, since the Georgian authorities allegedly sell the vessels in auctions and demand large sums of money to release the crew of the captured ships. They also claim that in some cases, ships carrying humanitarian goods are also intercepted.
The representatives of the Abkhazian diaspora in Turkey, also utilize similar arguments, and urge the Turkish government to lift its embargo. Turkey still supports the economic sanctions imposed against Abkhazia by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Irfan Argun the Speaker of Caucasus-Abkhazia Solidarity Committee, for instance, maintained that the sanctions are creating a major humanitarian crisis in Abkhazia and that Turkey should end its policy of supporting the Georgian embargo and play a larger role in the resolution of the issue of Abkhazia (www.ajanskafkas.com, August 22). Around 500,000 Turkish citizens consider themselves to be of Abkhazian origin.
At a more fundamental level, this crisis reflects the underlying dilemmas in Turkish policy on the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute. In an analysis published by the Ankara-based think tank close to the foreign ministry, the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, it was maintained that Ankara could no longer ignore the new reality in the region and act on the presumption that there was no problem relating to Abkhazia (www.orsam.org.tr, September 1). This line of thinking suggests that Ankara might need to redefine its policies toward the region. It justifies a redefinition with reference to the fact that if the present Georgian embargo continues, it might result in a situation whereby Abkhazia is forced to integrate itself into the Russian orbit both politically and economically. The best way to reverse such a trend, according to this view, would be to end the blockade of Abkhazia.
Reflecting the demands of the Abkhazian diaspora, deputies from Republican People’s Party submitted a question to parliament. They lambasted the government’s silence and requested that the prime minister explain why the government still insisted on implementing the embargo (www.kafkasfederasyonu.org, August 22).
Meanwhile, the Georgian attempts to implement the blockade have raised tension in the Black Sea region. The Abkhazian leader Sergei Bagapsh described the activities of Georgian ships in "Abkhazian waters" as piracy, and threatened to destroy them if Georgia did not cease its military activities (Anadolu Ajansi, September 2). A Russian foreign ministry spokesman warned Georgia about its practice of seizing commercial vessels, and said "attempts to enforce a sea blockade on Abkhazia could lead to a serious armed incident" (Anadolu Ajansi, September 3).
Against this background, Davutoglu visited Tbilisi, where he met his Georgian counterpart Nikoloz Gilauri and President Mikheil Saakashvili. He held a lengthy meeting with Saakashvili about the release of the captain. Davutoglu described Georgia as a "strategic partner," and reiterated Turkey’s support for its territorial integrity, and for Tbilisi’s NATO membership bid. Davutoglu said "We know very well that without ensuring Georgia’s peace and stability, it will be difficult to meet these goals in the South Caucasus" (Cihan, September 7).
In addition to the necessity of responding to the demands made by domestic pressure groups, the risk of Georgian-Abkhazian tensions escalating into a destabilizing regional conflict energizes Ankara to address Georgian-Abkhazian problems. The Turkish government values its partnership with Georgia, but it is also under pressure to realign its policies in light of the geopolitical transformations in the region. It will represent a major challenge for Turkish diplomacy in the days ahead to engage Abkhazia without severing ties with Tbilisi.