ROAR: Abkhazia relies on Russia in fighting Georgia’s “piracy”

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
The authorities in Abkhazia are ready to use weapons to stop Georgia’s “piracy” in its territorial waters. Many analysts have expressed fears it may draw Moscow into a new conflict with Tbilisi.

Georgia considers Abkhazia “an occupied territory” and has detained this year alone 23 ships under various flags bound from Abkhazia. Merchant ships may pass territorial waters of other states, but Georgia halt vessels on the grounds of fighting the smuggling of goods.

Tbilisi is guided in its actions against foreign ships by its own law on the sea. A Georgian court this week sentenced a captain of a Turkish tanker to 24 years in prison for smuggling. The tanker was carrying fuel to Abkhazia, recognized by Russia and Nicaragua as an independent state.

The case of the Turkish merchant ship and other boats that had been halted earlier has prompted the Abkhazian leadership to take tough measures. “Connections with Turkey are very important for Abkhazia because this is the only state except Russia with which [Sukhum] has trade relations,” Moskovsky Komsomolets daily wrote.

“The actions of the Georgian authorities are aimed at intimidating Turkish seamen and businessmen and forcing them to stop sailing to Abkhazia’s shores,” the paper said.

The President of Abkhazia Sergey Bagapsh – who had ordered the republic’s navy to prevent by all means Georgian warships from “pirating” – said the assistance of the Russian Navy or coastguards was not needed.

Many analysts, however, doubt that Abkhazia has enough potential to conduct military operations against a Georgian fleet, which is also estimated as weak. However, Moskovsky Komsomolets writes that Abkhazia’s navy at the beginning of 2007 numbered two big motor ships, several speed-boats and patrol ships. “Since that time the republic’s fleet has increased,” the daily added.

As for the Georgian navy, its potential has also been strengthened recently thanks to other countries, the daily noted, explaining Tbilisi’s increased activity at sea. Only a year ago the situation was different: Russian marines during the conflict over South Ossetia destroyed Georgia’s navy in the port of Poti, including flagship missile boat Dioskuria, the paper said.

Meanwhile, many observers believe Russian coastguards will be involved in operations against Georgian ships. Navy analyst Mikhail Barabanov told Vedomosti daily that, according to the agreement between Moscow and Sukhum, Russian coastguards will protect the maritime borders of Abkhazia.

Barabanov’s words have been confirmed by deputy head of the Russian frontier troops Evgeny Inchin. He said Russian guards would help protect ships bound for Abkhazia, especially taking into consideration the preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Nesterenko said on September 3 that Tbilisi’s capturing of Abkhazia-bound vessels is “nothing other than an outrageous violation of the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 and acts of international lawlessness.” The continuation of this practice may lead to violence, Nesterenko warned Tbilisi.

The Russian media also quote Abkhazian Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba as saying that Sukhum would speak about Georgia’s piracy at the Geneva talks on security in the South Caucasus scheduled for September 17-18.

If this effort brings no results, Abkhazia may use force. Moreover, if the international community does not demand that Georgia “stop piracy,” Sukhum might not send its delegation to Geneva, Vremya Novostey daily wrote.

Shamba also mentioned the agreements between Moscow and Sukhum. Russia has recognized Abkhazia and can help the republic in protecting its maritime borders, Moskovsky Komsomolets said. “However, open participation of our navy in the actions against Georgian coast guards is now undesirable, because this will provoke a negative reaction in the West,” the paper added.

At the same time, Tbilisi is playing a dangerous game in the region by halting foreign boats, observers note. The main question is “how far is Tbilisi ready to go in provoking a new conflict?” Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily writes.

“Now, everyone in the region understands: any attempts to capture a merchant vessel in Abkhazia’s territorial waters, irrespective of the fact if Tbilisi recognizes this republic or not, will lead to serious confrontation,” the paper stressed.

However, the Georgian president “might rely upon just such a conflict to return the fading interest in his country in the international community,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta said.

Georgia’s Minister of Reintegration Temuri Yakobashvili, in his turn, said that Russia’s possible actions protecting ships that enter “Georgian territorial waters” would be considered as “piracy.” Shipping cargoes to Abkhazia by sea without Tbilisi’s permission is “a violation of Georgia’s laws,” he told Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

“Georgia states that it is not against ships carrying cargoes to Abkhazia, but says they may do it only after Tbilisi’s permission,” Vremya Novostey said. “But this approach is not acceptable for Abkhazians.”

Many ship-owners might rethink sending vessels to the “troubled waters” in the present situation, some analysts believe because of the high risks. Such developments will not be advantageous to Tbilisi.

“If Georgia is trying to prevent Russian ships to [Abkhazian] waters, it may lead to a serious confrontation,” Georgian military analyst Irakly Sesiashvili told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. And in the case of a conflict, “the Georgian economy will suffer,” he said. “The appearance of Russians in Georgian waters will scare away private companies from the port of Poti,” he added.

The Russian military hope that the situation will not lead to a new confrontation in the Caucasus. A source in the Russian border guard troops told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that if Georgia “halts ships in neutral waters or in the waters of Abkhazia, the sovereignty of which has been recognized by Russia, then it is considered piracy.”

Russia is responsible for Abkhazia’s security, the source said. “I hope that the Georgian authorities would be wise enough so as not to repeat at sea mistakes which they made on the ground a year ago,” he added.

Sergey Borisov, RT