Black Sea, Caucasus and the Georgian Crisis, published together with a translation into Russian in SPECTRUM, Centre for Strategic Analysis, Regional Security Issues, 2008, pp.31-41, Amrot Group, Yerevan, Armenia.

Published, together with a translation into Russian, in SPECTRUM, Center for Strategic Analysis, Regional Security Issues, 2008, pp.31-41, Amrot Group, Yerevan, Armenia 


Yasar Yakis
Chairman of the EU Committee in the Turkish Parliament
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs


The Black Sea basin has always been an area of strategic importance but its importance re-surfaced after the Georgian crisis.  It derives its importance from several features: its maritime space is a major sea route for all types of cargo originating from or destined to the countries surrounding the Black Sea. It is the sea route for oil and gas originating either from Russia or from the Caspian Sea basin and destined to the Western markets. There are several pipelines that cross the territories of the countries surrounding the Black Sea. It constitutes both a bridge and a fault line between Russia and the remaining part of the world. This feature of the Black Sea offers both risks and opportunities.

There are several players in the Wider Black Sea region that includes the Caucasus, Western Balkans and to a certain extent part of the Middle East. Every country in the region is a player. However, some players are naturally more important than the others. I will take four of these players namely Russia, Turkey, the US and EU.

Russian Federation

Russia maintains both the capabilities and the will to remain a superpower. It never stopped giving messages to the world that it was serious on the questions of the regions that it called its “backyard” or “near abroad”. After Putin became President in 1999, the Russian Federation started to show bigger interest to the developments in the Black Sea and South Caucasus and became worried by several developments that took place in the region such as the “rose revolution” in Georgia and “orange revolution” in Ukraine; NATO’s enhanced interest in the States of the region; the US decision to deploy air defence shield in the Czech Republic and Poland; construction of oil and gas pipelines through Turkey.

Putin’s iron hand rule and the rise of oil prices made Russia self-confident again and the move by Georgia to send troops to South Ossetia gave Russia the pretext that it was badly looking for. Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia in addition to its recognition of the South Ossetia. These two recognitions are in contradiction with the provisions of the UN Security Council Resolution 1808 (2008) that was adopted 4 months before the recognition and that reaffirmed  “the commitment of all member states (of the UN including the Russian Federation) to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders”. It will not be easy for a permanent member of the UN Security Council to justify this contradiction. On the other hand, it will not be easy either to expel Russia by force from S. Ossetia and Abkhazia. Using soft power against a huge country of the size of the Russian Federation is not realistic. It will not yield any tangible result.


Turkey’s involvement in any cooperation initiative in the Black Sea basin is essential for several reasons: It has the longest coast in the Black Sea after Ukraine[1]; several energy pipelines crosses its territory; it holds the control of the Turkish Straits that are the only outlet of the Black Sea; it is the most populated riparian of the Black Sea after the Russian Federation; it is the initiator of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and other naval initiatives; it has one of the best market economies among the riparian countries; it has relatively developed industry that competes on equal footing with the EU industries as it has a Customs’ Union with the EU since 1996; it possesses soft power to contribute to the stability in a wide geography extending from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, from the Middle East to the Balkans and to the Caucasus and it is already using its soft power in the Middle East. It is a major NATO country.

Turkey believes that the Montreux Convention is a major factor in the stability in the Black Sea and of the territories of the riparian countries, because it recognizes the primacy of the interests of the riparian countries.

This policy of Turkey converges with the Russian interests, because Russia also favours naturally the primacy of the interests of the riparian countries. These converging interests between Turkey and Russia are at variance with the interests of the US that aspires to be able to maintain in the BS as much naval presence as it deems appropriate. However, it has to be remembered that, if there was no tension in the Black Sea for almost a century, it was to a great extent thanks to the Montreux Convention. Because of these converging interests and other economic and political reasons, Turkey maintains good and sound relations with Russia and believes that any equation in the Black Sea basin that does not take Russia into account is incomplete and has little chance of success.

Turkey wishes to avoid the Black Sea becoming an area of rivalry between the outside stakeholders to implement their global or regional strategies. Such a development will upset the stability of the basin and the countries of the region will be the first to suffer from its consequences.

United States

The American attitude towards the Black Sea evolved as the time went by. In 1936 the US was not interested in joining the Montreux Convention that was going to become later a major point of focus after the Georgian crisis. In the Potsdam Conference of 1945, President Roosevelt of the US did not even notice when Stalin inserted in the agreed minutes of the Conference a subtle expression to leave Turkey alone with Russia in the future negotiations to determine the status of the Turkish Straits[2]. After the fall of communism, the United States was looking at the Black Sea as a new component of its global responsibilities and its interest was based primarily on the hard power. It recognized the newly independent Caucasus countries before the end of 1991. Among three Caucasian countries Armenia attracted more the interest of the US mainly because of a sizeable ethnic Armenian community in the USA.

The accession of Bulgaria and Romania to NATO made the Black Sea part of NATO area.

In June 2006, US officials were pointing out that the US was interested in the Black Sea for three reasons [3]:

a)                 energy, which was characterised by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mr. Bryza as strategic interest;

b)                traditional security interests. This included fighting terrorism, fighting proliferation of nuclear arms, avoiding military conflicts and restoring (or preserving in certain cases) the territorial integrity of the States of the region;

c)                 democratic reforms and market economy reforms. The US believed that stability stems from legitimacy and legitimacy requires democracy in the political field and prosperity in the economic field.

At the beginning of 2008, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried stated that “neither Russia nor any State should have a sphere of influence over the States of the Black Sea region”. [4]

After the Georgian crisis, in early September, Vice-President Cheney pledged US help to Georgians to overcome the unilateral attempt to change Georgia’s borders.[5] Time will show to what extent the US will be able to achieve these policy goals.

European Union

After Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession, the EU has become a riparian of the Black Sea. Unlike the US, the EU wanted to be present in the region with its soft power. However, the Black Sea did not constitute a high priority for the EU in early 1990s.

The EU’s interest to the Black Sea started to take shape only after the turn of the century. A program is launched on 11 March 2003 under the title of “Wider Europe-Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours”. After the fifth enlargement of the EU on 1 May 2004 s steps are taken to enhance cooperation with the Black Sea countries. On 14 July 2004 South Caucasus countries are included in this program. At the beginning of April 2007 the European Commission launched a new initiative under the title of the Black Sea Synergy. The European Parliament went one step further and, in a resolution that it adopted on 10 July 2008, reiterated   the “importance of devising a more sophisticated and comprehensive EU Strategy for the Black Sea region that goes beyond the current synergy initiative and envisages the establishment of a Black Sea Cooperation Agreement, which should include the EU, Turkey, all Black Sea littoral States as equal partners, while seeking the full involvement of Russia, and which could, at a later stage, develop into a Union of the Black Sea”.

There is no reason to be suspicious about the intentions of the EU. However, it is common knowledge in the EU that there are divergent views on how to accommodate the countries of the Wider Black Sea. Some believe that after the enlargement fatigue and the backlash of the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by Irish referendum, it will not be cautious to adopt a promising attitude towards the countries of the region. There are differences among the EU countries on Abkhazia, S.Ossetia, Transdniester or bigger issues such as the question of how to handle Ukrainian issue. Some others believe that EU may encounter difficulties in developing a new strategy for the region. These difficulties are:[6]

a)                 certain countries of the region may not be at the desired level of preparedness;

b)                lack of enthusiasm of some member countries for such an opening;

c)                 the Russian factor

Every Black Sea country may have different perception regarding this Initiative. Turkey for one, has a bitter experience of disillusionment with the EU. Each time a new cooperation framework is launched; Turkey wonders whether it is designed as a substitute to Turkey’s full membership to the EU. We will see whether Russia will be prepared to be involved in a cooperation project developed in its absence. Whether the Initiative will get the support of major players in the region will most probably depend on how the EU will play the remaining part of the game. The Initiative is likely to create more divides within the EU. The divergences that surfaced on the Ukrainian and Georgian crises are indications of it.

Montreux Convention

There is an international Convention signed in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1936 that regulates not only the passage through the Turkish Straits but also the tonnage of the military vessels that non-riparian countries of the Black Sea would be allowed to keep in the Black Sea.

For the purpose of this article, the relevant section of the Montreux Convention is the provisions that pertain to this limitation. These provisions should not be perceived as an impediment to cooperation with non-riparian countries. On the contrary, it aimed at providing and preserving a military balance in order to maintain the stability in the Black Sea. The most important provisions that limit the tonnage of the military vessels of the non-riparian countries could be summarized as follows:

-         The tonnage, which any one non-Black Sea Power may have in the Black Sea, shall be limited to two-thirds of the aggregate tonnage of the strongest fleet in the Black Sea.

-         The aggregate tonnage of the vessels of the non-Black Sea Powers shall not exceed     30 thousand tons.

-         This upper limit may be increased to 45 000 tons in case the tonnage of the strongest fleet in the Black Sea is increased above this figure.

-         Non-riparian countries are not allowed to keep their military vessels more than 21 days in the Black Sea.

-         The aggregate tonnage of the naval vessels that will cross the Turkish Straits at the same time shall not exceed 15 thousand tons.

The Montreux Convention has established in the Black Sea balance that satisfied all parties to the Convention. Despite the fact the Convention was signed for a period of 20 years and that it was going to expire in 1956 in case one of the parties was to object to its renewal, no country party to the Convention opposed the tacit renewal. This is an indication that the Convention laid just and equitable grounds for the stability in the Black Sea basin.

 Most recently, on the occasion of the Georgian crisis this Convention was highlighted in the media but nobody questioned its validity or appropriateness. The US was slightly surprised to learn that it was not possible for a non-riparian country to send a 69 000 ton hospital ship to the shores of Georgia after the Georgian crisis. However, it understood the delicacy of the situation and did not insist.

 Basically, the security concerns of the riparian States are respected and their security in the context of naval forces in the Black Sea is guaranteed, by means of restrictions imposed on non-riparian States. On the other hand, the free circulation of merchant ships is also guaranteed. Turkey has always acted with care and diligence for the implementation of the treaty. Arrangements respecting and fulfilling expectations of the riparian States, while protecting the legitimate interests of the non-riparian States have greater chance of success.

Frozen Conflicts

There were four frozen conflicts in the Black Sea basin, namely South Ossetia (S. Ossetia), Abkhazia, Nogorno Karabakh and Transnistria. It is debatable whether S. Ossetia and Abkhazia could still be called “frozen”. Most probably these two conflicts will remain as conflicts but they may be kept in a separate department of the refrigerator.

The common features of these four conflicts are that they all are in the territories of the former Soviet Union; they are based on ethnic grounds; they could be solved so far if Russia wanted them to be solved; it is not easy to solve them against the will of Russia.

Russia demonstrated by its attitude in S. Ossetia and Abkhazia that it may use the ethnic conflicts whenever they serve its strategic interests.

There is another contradiction in the Russian attitude to back the ethnic conflict in Abkhazia and Ossetia while using disproportionate military force for ethnic conflict in the North Caucasus. A person who lives in a crystal tower should refrain from throwing stone at others.

Georgian Crisis

The Georgian Crisis of August 2008 broke out as a result of a military move into S. Ossetia by the Georgian authorities. Leaving aside who is right or wrong, this incident indicates that in such a fragile region a minor miscalculation may lead to a much bigger instability. Russia consolidated its military presence not only in S. Ossetia, but also in Abkhazia that had nothing to do directly with what was happening in S. Ossetia.

Many countries, to start with the countries of the region, must have drawn their conclusions from this crisis: Ukraine must be watching anxiously its effects over the agreement by which Russia promised Ukraine to evacuate the naval base in Sevastopol in 2017. The crisis will bring this agreement under further focus. Azerbaijan and Turkey and the international oil companies saw the risks of spillover of the instability in the region towards the routes of the oil and gas pipelines. The US witnessed the Russian determination to hold its influence on its near abroad. Georgia must have realized that two autonomous Republics that are recognized by the international community as part of Georgia have now moved further away from its control. The biggest injustice will be done to Georgia in case the US and the international community do not energetically enough to a de facto modus vivendi by which Russia will keep silent on the question of the recognition of Kosovo in exchange of the international community keeping silent on the question of the recognition by Russia of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such a linkage has neither legal nor ethical grounds.

The crisis may have given the Russian Federation an additional justification to maintain a strong naval force in the Black Sea.

The crisis has put the Montreux Convention to a test and the Convention emerged successful from this test. It is likely that all stakeholders of the Montreux Convention will come, sooner or later, to the conclusion that the balance struck between the interests of various parties by the Montreux Convention is the best that can be established in light of circumstances that prevail in the region.

Black Sea as an Area of Cooperation

a) The Military importance of the Black Sea

The role of the Black Sea region as an energy corridor and an area of frozen conflicts make it an important region from the military standpoint, but it also offers huge potentials for cooperation both militarily and economically. As far as the security is concerned, we may talk of risk rather than threats in the Black Sea region. The riparian countries have the capability to cope with these risks. There are two indigenous initiatives to address such risks: Bleackseafor and Operation Black Sea Harmony. These two initiatives are at present major security providers in the Black Sea maritime area. They are based on two pillars: a) to attain all riparian countries; b) maritime security should be complementary to the Euro-Atlantic system, because security is indivisible.

b) The Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)

The Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) is the only indigenous initiative to capitalize on the new parameters that were emerging in the region after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is the first example of an institutionalized and widely inclusive multilateral cooperation platform in the Black Sea region consisting of member countries with divergent economic and social experiences, as well as different visions and agenda for their future. BSEC was established on the idea that stronger economic cooperation among the Black Sea countries would enhance stability in the region by helping the member States to achieve sustainable economic structures. Thus, its institutional framework was set up with the underlying motive of integrating the region into the world economy. Taking economic cooperation as a common denominator, the founders of the Organization had the far-reaching objective of turning diverse approaches in the region into a common understanding of peace, stability, democracy and the spirit of conciliation. In this context, BSEC has come a long way towards helping the member States’ ongoing process of transformation. It cannot be claimed that BSEC has fulfilled all the expectations in its almost 17 years of existence. However a new sprit of cooperation started to emerge between the member States. There are several reasons for BSEC not being able to achieve the desired level of performance at the initial stage: Frozen conflicts were one of the reasons. Lack of project-based concrete achievements was another.

However, recently, the Organization has achieved a visible degree of progress with the common efforts of all its members. This is due to a growing understanding among the members on the essentiality of BSEC, as a regional cooperation platform and a common determination towards shifting to a project-oriented and result-based approach within the Organization. These facts demonstrate that, in its more than sixteen year-evolution process, BSEC has been able to gather its members around common ideas, goals and policies that, itself, is sufficient proof of the success of the Organization.

The growing local and international interest in the Black Sea region imposes on BSEC the obligation to play a more active role and the re-emerging spirit of cooperation between the members gives the BSEC the chance to respond positively to new opportunities and challenges.

The BSEC area includes a population of 330 million inhabitants and an area of 20 million square kilometres with dynamic human potential and rich natural resources including oil and natural gas.

The BSEC needs to be restructured to ensure a more effective decision-making mechanism as well as due and rapid implementation of the decisions taken at the top level. This restructuring cannot be achieved by amending the regulations or by adopting a number of decisions. Instead, BSEC should be transformed into an organization with a certain degree of flexibility to be able to respond quickly to new challenges in an ever-changing global environment.

Platform for Cooperation and Stability in the Caucasus

After the Georgian crisis Turkey launched an initiative that is called the Platform for Cooperation and Stability in the Caucasus. This initiative does not aim at substituting any existing organization, forum or platform. It is complementary to them. Subjects that cannot be discussed in other fora may be brought to this forum. The advantage of the forum lies in the fact that it comprises only the Caucasus countries that have direct stake in the region, namely Turkey, the Russian Federation, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, in other words there will not be exogenous participation in the Platform. Such exogenous participation carries the risk of diluting the subjects of cooperation with inputs alien to the region. Countries of the region are the ones who will benefit from the advantages that will accrue from the cooperation and who will suffer from the failure of their cooperation.

 Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia had already extended their support to the initiative. Georgia had misgivings at the initial stage on the grounds that it could not sit around the same table with a country that occupies its territory. This was not a convincing reason since both Georgia and Russia were sitting around the same table in the BSEC. The support of Armenia for a project launched by Turkey was welcomed with appreciation in Turkey. The football diplomacy must have played a positive role in this attitude of Armenia. Whatever the reason, the outcome is positive both for Turkish-Armenian bilateral relations and for the success of the Platform initiative.

The Black Sea always had strategic importance throughout the history. The Georgian crisis and its ramifications constitute the most recent evidence of this strategic importance. The crisis emphasized once more the importance of peace and stability in the region.

Some commentators viewed the Georgian crisis as a return to the power politics of the past and they foresee more pessimistic scenarios. Some others regard it as a road accident. Nonetheless, one thing is clearly seen. There are certain elements of instability in the region. If they are not contained or at least addressed, the consequences of such crisis may affect the entire region. Such conflicts or potentials of instability require more comprehensive diplomatic and political initiatives; nevertheless economic cooperation is the cornerstone of regional stability and a practical mechanism for reducing political risks and conflicts.

Turkish Armenian relations

Turkish-Armenian relations were moving slowly out of their inertia for a long time. This slow move was visible before the Georgian crisis. One may say that it was positively affected by the crisis at least on the case of the support that Armenia extended to Turkey on the question of the Platform for cooperation and Stability in the Caucasus.

Turkish-Armenian relations are hostage of the past. There is growing awareness that this situation did not do any good to either side. Courageous efforts are needed on both sides to be able to leave the past to the past and to be able to look forward. The football diplomacy was a courageous step, no matter how modest it was. Referring to this step, some people in Turkey, using an Anatolian idiom, say that “(Now that we have one horseshoe) All what we need is to find three more horseshoes and a horse[7]. Despite this unhopeful tone, I believe that every effort should be made to find three more horseshoes and a horse.


 There are challenges and risks in the Black Sea region that existed even before the Georgian crisis. However the Georgian crisis sharpened both the challenges and the risks. It will be primarily up to the countries of the region to transform these challenges into advantages and enjoy the benefits.


[1] Ukraine has a coastal line of 1 600 km as compared to 1431 km for Turkey. However Turkish coastal line accommodates higher number of harbours and is more suitable for all types of maritime installations.

[2] The Agreed minutes of the Potsdam Conference read as follows: “The future status of the Turkish Straits will be determined through negotiations between each of the Allied government and the government of Turkey”. Both Roosevelt and Churchill thought that the status of the Turkish Straits was going to be negotiated between the governments of three allied on the one side and the government of Turkey on the other side, in other words without leaving Turkey alone in front of Russia.

[3] Nichol, Jim, Armenia Azerbaijan and Georgia  (updated 6 November 2008 Web site text)


[4] House of Representatives. Testimony of Daniel Fried, June 18, 2008.

[5]  The White House. Office of the Vice President. Remarks by Vice President Cheney and

President Saakashvili of Georgia After Meeting, September 4, 2008.

[6] Asmus, Ronald, New Steps in Forging a Euro Atlantic Strategy for the Wider Black Sea, publication of German Marshall Fund, 2006

[7] In Turkish: “Işimiz üç nalla bir ata kaldı”

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