What is doing Tirkey in Abkhazia?
By Nick Clayton, Sukhumi
Although Georgia continues to maintain an embargo on all trade and foreign economic activity with the breakaway republic of Abkhazia since 1996, local observers say trade and economic links between Turkey and Abkhazia have in fact grown rapidly in the past two years.
Abkhazia has been under an official blockade and a ban on all economic activity imposed by the Commonwealth of Independent States since 1996. Although Russia began progressively lifting economic sanctions on Abkhazia in 2000, causing land trade to increase, Georgian navy patrols continued to make sea trade with Abkhazia sparse and treacherous.
More than 60 ships were reportedly captured by the Georgian navy between 1999-2009. Often times the ships were later auctioned off and their crews briefly imprisoned. However, two events in late 2009 seem to have all but halted the enforcement of the sea blockade against Abkhazia.
First, the seizure of the Turkish tanker, “Buket,” reportedly carrying 17 Turkish crew members and 2,800 tons of fuel, in August 2009 ignited a diplomatic row with Turkey after the Turkish captain was sentenced to 24 years in prison for violating the blockade.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promptly flew to Tbilisi, and within five days of his conviction, the captain was released. According to Turkish daily, Today’s Zaman, this incident led to a meeting between Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze and his Turkish counterpart the following April, during which a framework for Turkish-Abkhazian relations was discussed.
At the same time, in September 2009, Russia announced that it would be sending its coast guard vessels to protect Abkhazia’s “territorial waters,” and said it would engage any Georgian ships attempting to seize Abkhazia-bound ships.
Since then, the Georgian Coast Guard has only publicly acknowledged capturing one ship headed for Abkhazia – a Ukrainian vessel, which was released along with its crew in 2010 with no charges or fines imposed.
The Georgian Ministry of Defence declined to comment on the status of the blockade and illicit trade with Abkhazia.
Akhra Smyr, a Sokhumi-based blogger for Radio Free Europe said that both the presence of Turkish ships and Turkish backed business investments have boomed in the last year and a half. A reporter with Liberali observed five different ships bearing Turkish flags in the port of Sokhumi during a two-day period in early February. Some bore both Abkhaz and Turkish flags and all were fishing vessels except one container ship, which unloaded supplies.
According to a report written by Abkhaz economist Beslan Baratelia cited in the Turkish Policy Quarterly, about 60 percent of imports in Abkhazia come from Turkey while about 45 percent of Abkhazia’s exports were sold in Turkey. Baratelia estimated that in 2007, before significant investments made by Russia and also the boom in Turkish trade and investment, that about 30 percent of Abkhazia’s governmental budget came from customs duties on trade with Turkey.
Turkey has also increased its high-level diplomatic contact with Abkhazia, twice sending senior diplomats to Abkhazia for meetings with de facto Abkhaz Prime Minister Sergei Shamba in the last two years. After the most recent visit in April 2010, Turkish Ambassador to Georgia Murat Burhan, who was among those who made the trip, said that working groups had been set up to expand bilateral ties between the two sides and that Ankara hoped “to discuss establishing direct trade relations with Abkhazia.”
According to Burcu Gultekin Punsmann, a policy analyst for the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, the Turkish government has been facing increasing pressure from the sizable Abkhaz diaspora community in Turkey, estimated at about 500,000 people. Smyr said that many of the new businesses opened across Abkhazia were led by returning Turkish citizens of Abkhaz ethnicity, and thus Turkish foreign policy has been forced to adjust, albeit unofficially.
Punsmann wrote in a report last July that Turkish diplomats have been discussing with their Georgian counterparts a restoration of transportation ties between Turkey and Abkhazia, including air and sea links between Trabzon and Sokhumi. One possibility would be for ferries to make a stopover in Batumi in order to go through a customs check before continuing on to Abkhazia.
Still, Turkey’s economic involvement in Abkhazia remains dwarfed by the massive amount of investment and business ties made by Russia, particularly in the wake of the August war and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent. Russia has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading Abkhazia’s infrastructure, giving direct aid to the government and buying up property and strategic assets in the region.
Furthermore, the de facto Abkhaz government remains frustrated that Turkey seems to be focused on building self-interested economic ties while eschewing recognition and official political ties, said an Abkhaz official in the Abkhaz ministry of foreign affairs on the condition of anonymity.
The Abkhaz political opposition has been wary of the opportunism as well. Former de facto Abkhaz Prime Minister and current opposition leader Raul Khajimba told Liberali that Russia remains Abkhazia’s only true economic partner, while Turkey exploits Abkhazia for cheap commodities.
“Buy-sell is what we call that relationship. We cut down our forests and sell it to the Turks. They build other things out of it and sell it elsewhere. But, if we were building products with our own people and the help of Turkish investment then that would be an equal relationship, but right now they are just getting things from us, just taking,” he said.