Turkish trade with Abkhazia: An apple of discord for Georgia

Turkish trade with Abkhazia: An apple of discord for Georgia

Georgia and Turkey have enjoyed two fruitful and eventful decades of cooperation. However, one serious point of contention for Georgia is the relationship that Turkey has with one of the occupied regions of Georgia – Abkhazia.

Despite the fact that Abkhazia has been under an embargo on all trade and foreign economic activities by Georgia, economic and trade ties between Turkey and Abkhazia have intensified rapidly during the past few years. In 2013, the volume of foreign trade between Turkey and Abkhazia allegedly rose to $600 million, which is an unofficial, but still credible number. The majority of trade is transported through the Black Sea, with Turkish vessels leaving the Turkish ports of Istanbul, Samsun and Trabzon, and officially heading for Sochi. After reaching Sochi, or sometimes rerouting midway, the vessel then travels to Sukhumi and returns to Turkish ports with Abkhaz exports.

For officials in Tbilisi, these actions represent the violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity, not to mention a number of legislative acts that are important to the government, and which consider Abkhazia to be a region occupied by Russia. As vessels were seized by the Georgian navy, Georgia-Turkey relations were strained.

Eventually all detained Turkish vessels were released or sold in auctions, in most cases the only bidders being the former owners. However, the problem has not yet been solved. In 2009 and 2010, the Georgian and Turkish sides held several rounds of negotiations, including in Ankara in spring 2010 and Batumi in summer 2010. Even though the parties were very close to reaching a consensus, no agreement was reached.

Turkey’s attempts to promote trade with Abkhazia is understandable, as Ankara does not want Abkhazia to be economically isolated, Russian businesses to dominate Abkhazia or the traditional links between the Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey and their motherland to be severed. While trying to reach these goals, however, for Tbilisi, Turkey has lost its reputation of a potentially constructive broker who could de-isolate Abkhazia and assist Georgia in building confidence with the Abkhaz population.

For the Georgian side, the principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence are extremely important, especially when it comes to the occupied regions. In a similar way, the endorsement of Georgia’s strategy toward these regions is an important principle, too. For the Turkish side, respect for the international legal principles governing the movement of vessels in the high seas is important. So is the principle of respecting the private property of the ship-owners and inviolability of the crew. If the parties ever secure an agreement, they will have to explicitly agree to uphold these principles.

While there are obvious positive aspects of the possible agreement – a restoration of trust between Georgia and Turkey on Abkhaz-related matters, the end to the current practice of shady economic activities, the possibility of Turkey playing a larger role in confidence building and conflict resolution initiatives in Abkhazia, and opening Abkhazia up economically and reducing its dependence on Russia – negative aspects persist, too. For Georgia, such a step could open a Pandora’s Box of various ad hoc arrangements with regard to trade between Abkhazia and European countries. It could also potentially open a contraband loophole from Abkhazia to the rest of Georgia. For Turkey, such an arrangement could risk angering the Abkhaz leadership and potentially upsetting some of the powerful diaspora representatives in Istanbul and Ankara. But this is a price tag.

Currently, it seems that Tbilisi and Ankara have forgotten about the problem of vessels and how close they were to an agreement just four years ago. If they have the will, a small push by the politicians on both sides could bring the negotiations to place the illegal trade with Abkhazia in a legal framework back on track.        

* Sergi Kapanadze is the director of the Tbilisi-based, Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS). He served as a Deputy Foreign Minister of Georgia and was in charge of the negotiations with Turkey over the captured vessels in 2009-10. This is an abridged version of the original article in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Fall 2014 issue. www.turkishpolicy.com