Georgian sea blockade of Abkhazia
The Georgian sea blockade of Abkhazia has been in force since 2004, when it was ordered to be imposed by Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. However, the then Georgian Navy and current Coast Guard was and has been incapable of enforcing a blockade. As a response to the 2008 South Ossetia war, Georgia moved to intensify Abkhazia and South Ossetia's isolation, declaring both entities as Russian-occupied territories outlawing economic activity in the regions without Tbilisi’s permission. Several cargo ships have been seized and their crews detained by the Georgian Coast Guard in 2009 on the grounds of violating of Georgia’s law on occupied territories, which bans economic activities with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia without Georgia’s consent.
Twenty-three cargo ships delivering supplies to Abkhazia have been seized in the Black Sea by the Georgian Navy in 2009. Abkhaz authorities have called the Georgian actions "piracy." In mid-August, Georgia seized a Turkish tanker, the Buket, in international waters alleged to be delivering 2,000 metric tons of gasoline and 770 metric tons of diesel to Abkhazia and detained its captain and crew. The ship was taken into Georgian government ownership, and may later be auctioned by the Georgian Ministry of Finance. A Georgian court sentenced the captain of the ship to 24 years in prison for smuggling and unauthorized economic activity with Abkhazia. His sentence was reduced by an appeals court to 3 years in prison and a fine of $30,000 Lari ($18,000 dollars). Georgia announced that it would release the crew, consisting of 12 Turks and 4 Azerbaijanis, on $30,000 bail. The Georgian government released the captain on 8 September.
On 2 September 2009, President of Abkhazia Sergei Bagapsh warned that the Abkhazian naval forces will destroy any Georgian ships engaged in future "pirate actions". Georgia's deputy Prime Minister Temur Yakobashvili shrugged off the Abkhazian threat, saying that Abkhazia has no technical means to destroy ships. "Moreover," Yakobashvili said, "it is not his [Bagapsh's] business. It looks more like a pre-election bluff."
On 30 September 2009, Abkhazian Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba warned that Georgia will be held responsible for any future confrontation in the Black Sea. "All hostilities [in the region] in the past decade have been initiated by Georgia, and only Georgia can provoke a new conflict...Recently they [the Georgians] have been active in the [Black] sea, and Russia, fulfilling its obligations will help us protect our borders."
After the seizure of the Turkish ship by Georgian navy, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent an ultimatum to Georgia demanding the immediate release of the Azerbaijani citizens involved.
The Georgian Foreign Minister, Grigol Vashadze, said Bagapsh was a criminal and it was up to Georgian law enforcement agencies to respond to his threats. The Georgian authorities said Russia was behind the Abkhaz side’s threat.
On August 16 a Georgian naval boat seized the Turkish tanker Buket in the neutral waters of the Black Sea. The representative of the Turkish company Densa Tanker Isletmeciligi, owner of the captured tanker Buket, recently told the national press that the ship was detained 96 miles from the Turkish port of Sinop.
Andrei Nesterenko, a spokesman of the Russian Foreign Ministry said, on September 3, 2009, further seizure of cargo ships en route to Abkhazia by Georgian Coast Guard may cause “serious armed incidents” and blamed Georgia for possible escalation. Earlier, Deputy head of Russian Federal Security Service border guard department, Yevgeny Inchin, said on August 28, 2009 that a unit of the Russian border guards Coast Guard stationed in Abkhazia would be dispatched to provide security for ships entering Abkhazia. This statement was denounced by Georgia as a violation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. On September 21, 2009, the Russian Coast Guard patrol boat Novorossiysk arrived, as part of an eventual flotilla that could number up to ten vessels, tasked with protecting Abkhazian waters and countering Georgian actions. The Federal Security Service announced that a base for the flotilla would be established in Abkhazia, and that Russian Border Guards would detain anyone caught trying to cross illegally into Abkhazia from Georgia.
The Turkish magazine Sunday's Zaman said that the primary purpose of the seizures by Georgian navy is to prevent trade with the separatist region. "Georgia constantly strives to block all trade routes to Abkhazia, an attempt to deprive the breakaway region economically, with Turkish ships suffering most in the Black Sea due to 'Georgian piracy'," the magazine wrote.
European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) said on September 2, 2009 that it was concerned about the statements by the Georgian, Abkhaz and Russian sides on the matter and the issue was to be included in the agenda of the meeting under the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) scheme between the sides planned for September 8 in Gali.
According to Russian naval analyst and chief editor of Moscow Defense Brief, Mikhail Barabanov, Abkhazia does indeed have the technical ability to fight Georgia's coast guards because during the 2008 war, Russia destroyed Georgia's largest warships, the Dioskuria and the Tbilisi missile boats. Still, Barabanov pointed out that it is more likely that the Coast Guard of the Russian Federal Security Service would be ordered to curtail Georgia's naval raids. Under a Russian-Abkhazian agreement, Russia is obliged to protect Abkhazia's maritime borders.
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