‘Pirates’ and ‘Protectors’ on the Black Sea

Fuel-smugglers, embargo-busters, accusations of piracy and threats of armed retribution: the temperature off the Black Sea coast of Georgia seems to be heating up towards boiling point. When I was in the disputed Black Sea region of Abkhazia  a couple of weeks ago, people were worried about possible gasoline shortages because Georgian coastguards had seized a ship carrying fuel which was bound for the region. The Abkhaz called the Georgians pirates, but the Georgian authorities pointed to their own legislation, which outlaws trade with the unrecognised republic.

The captain of that ship (Turkish-operated, sailing under a Panamese flag) was this week sentenced to an incredible 24 years in prison for his misdemeanours – a powerful message to the various other Turkish companies who’ve been breaking the Georgian embargo on Abkhazia. Today, the Abkhaz declared that they would destroy any Georgian vessels which violated Abkhazia’s “sea border”. The Georgian foreign minister retaliated furiously, calling Abkhazia’s leader a criminal.
Then there are the Russians: I saw two Russian warships standing guard off the coast of Moscow-backed Abkhazia (one of them is shown in the photo above), which suggests that any maritime row could have the potential to degenerate into a much more serious confrontation. The Russians, who recognised Abkhazia as an independent state in August 2008 and have since declared themselves the region’s sole protectors, have said that they will provide security for cargo ships heading towards Abkhaz ports. All this might be bluster – the rattle of sabres being a perennial soundtrack here in the Caucasus – but it shows that more than a year after the war, the threat of violence definitely remains.