Georgians, Abkhaz Clash Over Detained Ship

A quarrel between Georgians and Abkhaz over seizure of a Turkish trawler has put sea trade with the unrecognised republic under scrutiny.

Georgians, Abkhaz Clash Over Detained Ship

A quarrel between Georgians and Abkhaz over seizure of a Turkish trawler has put sea trade with the unrecognised republic under scrutiny.

Thursday, 28 November, 2002

Georgia's detention last week of a Turkish fishing vessel travelling from Abkhazia has caused a new row over maritime trade with the unrecognised republic. The Georgians call it "smuggling" - the Abkhaz an economic lifeline.

Mutual accusations started flying after the Shekir Baba was dramatically seized on November 19 by coast guards who opened fire on the vessel.

"The Abkhaz authorities treat the actions of the Georgian side as those of pirates, (but) the trawler is working under contract with the Turkish-Abkhaz joint venture Amlagur and when it was arrested it was fishing in neutral waters, 38 km from the cape of Pitsunda (in northern Abkhazia)," Valery Arshba, Abkhazia's vice-president, told reporters.

"The Turkish vessel was in the territorial waters of Georgia without any official documents," Gocha Vetryakov of Georgia's border guards told IWPR. "For four hours the ship refused to obey the border guards and tried to escape towards Abkhazia. We only managed to detain the trawler by firing warning shots at it."

Vetryakov said the regional head of Turkey's border guards in Trabzon, Necdet Guler, had also tried to contact the ship, following a Georgian official request. Guler had called the operation to detain the vessel and the criminal charges brought against it "entirely legal", Vetryakov said.

However, speaking on November 28 at a court in Poti, where the vessel is being held, the lawyer representing the ship, Mirian Matiashvili, reiterated that it had in fact been in international waters between the Abkhaz port of Gagra and the Russian port of Sochi. "The Georgian border guards had no right to detain the ship," he told IWPR.

The court has issued the ship with a fine of 65,000 lari (about 30,000 US dollars) for illegal fishing. It is also likely to be fined a further 200,000 lari for unlawfully entering Georgian waters.

The ship's owners have said they will fight the decision. A Turkish representative of the company attending the court hearing, Fatih Turan, said, "If necessary, the crew of the Turkish trawler will seek justice in a European arbitration court."

The six tons of fish confiscated from the ship have already been sent to the kitchens of the Georgian army.

Ever since the conflict between Georgians and Abkhaz ended in 1993, Abkhazia has been closed to any official international trade. The breakaway republic has declared itself independent and therefore free to trade with whomever it likes - in practice this means Turkey by sea and Russia by land.

Tbilisi has imposed a sanctions regime against Abkhazia, officially backed by other CIS countries, and President Eduard Shevardnadze published a decree stating that all foreign ships should pass through Poti on their way to and from the breakaway republic and be inspected by Georgian customs.

That decree, however, has been continually violated, Vetryakov told IWPR. The seizure of the Shekir Baba suggests the Georgians are now trying to enforce the measure - to the indignation of the Abkhaz authorities.

"The Tbilisi government is jealously watching the development of the economy of Abkhazia and trying in any way it can to hamper it," said Raula Khajimba, first deputy prime minister of the unrecognised republic. "The firing on the trawler on November 19 was designed to frighten our Turkish partners and end collaboration between Abkhaz and Turkish businessmen."

Turkey is caught in the middle of this dispute. It is Georgia's main trading partner and the two countries share a long land border. But it also contains a large Abkhaz diaspora. Turkish businessmen unofficially conduct a vigorous trade with Abkhazia across the Black Sea, buying up fish, timber and coal.

Some Turkish traders have dealt with both sides. In January 1999, the Abkhaz detained a Turkish ship, which was fishing near their coastline, because it had signed a contract with a Georgian company named Kolkhida.

The trawler was freed but returned to the same coastline two weeks later on completely different terms. The enterprising owner had signed a new contract with the Abkhaz, which led to the creation of the joint company Amlagur, the owner of the boat detained last week.

In Abkhazia itself, the official fishing company Abkhazryba was devastated by the emergence of a new company, making deep inroads into what had been its monopoly. Abkhazryba, whose fishing fleet was inferior to the new firm, began to lose money. Eventually the republic's president, Vladislav Ardzinba, took the side of Amlagur and disbanded the official company.

Georgian official statistics show that border guards have detained 22 ships for crossing unauthorised into its territorial waters over the last four years - although, unlike the Shekir Baba, they were not arrested. Most have been Turkish, but they have also come from Ukraine, Greece and Estonia. This, however, is only a tiny proportion of the total number of ships visiting Abkhazia - a challenge the Georgians now seem intent on confronting.

"Two or three ships belonging to private firms arrive in Sukhumi from Turkey every day," said Sergo Zibzibadze, a leading intelligence official. "During the first Chechen campaign in the mid-Nineties Turkish ships delivered fighters to Abkhazia on their way to the North Caucasus. It's quite possible that on these ships there could be fighters, weapons, drugs, Wahhabi literature and any other kind of contraband."

The Abkhaz authorities deny that the ships visiting their waters are engaged in anything other than normal trade.

But one aspect of the fishing business does worry some Abkhaz observers. It is that the ships working for Amlagur are equipped with "creep" fishing gear that trawls deep under the sea and is officially forbidden in the rest of the Black Sea.

"The trawlers have stripped the entire sea bed bare with this equipment, destroying the sea weed and leaving only bare stones behind them," one official with Abkhazia's environmental department, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR.

The official warned that "it will take only a few more years of this practice for all the fish to disappear altogether from the coasts of Abkhazia and, as it happens, many regions of Georgia, where 'creep' equipment is also used".

Tea Absaridze is a journalist with Poti television. Inal Khashig reports for the BBC World Service from Abkhazia.

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