The Black Sea and the Georgian Crisis, lecture at the International Centre for Black Sea Studies, Athens, 13 November 2008 (Text and Power Point)


The Third Annual Lecture of International Centre for Black Sea Studies (ICBSS), Athens, 13 November 2008

At the outset, I would like to express my great pleasure to be here to address this distinguished gathering. It is a great honour for me to be invited to deliver a lecture in such an appreciated think tank as the International Centre for Black Sea Studies (ICBSS). The activities of the ICBSS are followed with great interest since several years. It makes valuable contributions to a better understanding of the problems of the Black Sea region. Its successful record so far gives hope that it will continue to be successful in the future.

I am also pleased to deliver this lecture on this topic. The Black Sea has a particular fascination for me, because I was born in a town on the Black Sea coast of Turkey. When I look at the sea through the window of my house in my hometown, the Black Sea reminds me many things: At my young ages, I was extremely fascinated by the expedition of the Argonauts in the Greek mythology, this Greek ship named “Argo” with a group of 50 courageous sailors including Jason, Heracles, Orpheus, Telemont and others that sailed to Cochides, to the lands of my ancestors, to conquest the Golden Fleece. I used to imagine that they might have landed in my hometown to replenish their water and food stock. I even remember that, interrupting my reading of the Greek mythology, I went to the seashore to inspect at which point could they have landed, if ever they landed.

 “Sea change” in the Black Sea Region

During my career as a diplomat, for a long time the situation in the Black Sea was a reminder of the Cold War in the region. It was on the border between the two Blocs. The interaction between the two sides was quite limited. If there were any contact, it comprised only the coastal States. For the Black Sea countries their coast meant a borderline or the edge of the earth. The other side was quite distant. Even direct communication and transportation was limited. Tourism was almost non-existent. A Russian tourist that I met recently in Antalya told me that during the communist era they were almost unaware of the existence of a country called Turkey beyond the Black Sea.

Nevertheless, before the end of my diplomatic career, I was lucky enough to see the “sea change” in the Black Sea region, following the end of the Cold War. I was even luckier to take an active part in the establishment of the first and the main significant international organization of the region, namely the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). I was asked to chair almost all of the preparatory meetings that led to the establishment of the BSEC, because, at the time of the establishment of the BSEC, I happened to be the Deputy Under-Secretary in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in charge of economic affairs. The name, the official language, the working methods, the number of organs of the BSEC and the emblem, was all decided during these meetings. I still remember in detail the lengthy debates that lasted until very late in the night or early hours of the morning. This is why I always say that the BSEC was born into my arms.

 This organization brought together the coastal countries, as well as many other regional countries.

Did the BSEC achieve what it was expected to achieve? The answer to this question is yes and no. It may not have fulfilled the expectations of those who expected too much of such an organisation. However for realistic people it has achieved what was realistically possible under the circumstance that prevailed in this region since last 15 years.

I know that work is going on within the BSEC to further streamline the priorities and adopt a sectoral approach in the economic cooperation in order to focus on more easily implementable projects.

Now, the Black Sea is not the same sea of the second half of the last century. It is not the borderline anymore. Unlike the previous generations, we regard nowadays the political borders as windows of opportunity,.  The contacts between the countries of region are abundant in many areas. The Black Sea is the gate opening to many new opportunities for the coastal countries. Depending on from where you look at the Sea today, it can be your access to not only the other coastal countries, but to the European Union, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Central Asia and even the Middle East.

Importance of the region after the Georgian crisis

The BSEC was the first concrete initiative for regional cooperation. It was established with modest but very reasonable expectations. Some of the countries in the region have undergone a significant transition. The EU has reached the Black Sea. Nevertheless the developments following the establishment of the BSEC have not overshadowed the importance of the cooperation in the Black sea region. On the contrary, the developments such as the progress of the European integration have only reiterated the importance of this cooperation among the regional countries.

Most recently, the Georgian crisis has once more shown the importance of peace and stability in the region. The Black Sea always had strategic importance throughout the history. The Georgian crisis and its ramifications constitute the most actual evidence of this strategic importance.

If we look back to the past, we see that the Black Sea has always been the border of world powers, to name a few, Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, Russian Empire… Both World Wars had fronts nearby the Black Sea. In the second half of the last century, it was on the border between the Western and the Eastern Blocs. Now, it constitutes the border of not only the European Union, but the NATO and the Russian Federation as well. Moreover, its proximity to conflict zones such as the Caucasus, the Central Asia and the Middle East renders it even more crucial for global security.

Furthermore, if we look through the economic perspective, its proximity to main energy supply routes and energy resources, growing economies and the dynamic populations of the countries in the region are the factors to be taken into account in any policy planning regarding 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 an exceptional case. 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.

The peace and stability in the Black Sea Region

The peace and stability in the Black Sea Region is not only a matter of concern for the coastal or regional countries. If the stability in the region is menaced, its reflections are to be felt beyond the region, as the Georgian crisis has clearly shown. However, the main actors to achieve peace and stability are the coastal and regional States. Primarily these states are in the position to cooperate for their own region. Of course, other interested countries can contribute to this process, but main driving force should be the common consent of the regional countries and the contributions of the other interested parties should be involved in conformity with this consent. Regional cooperation to maintain security and stability in the region is for the interest of all parties, either regional or non-regional.

All countries in the region seek economic development and better conditions. Economic growth cannot be achieved in an unstable security environment. Nobody can gain in such a situation. So, efforts aiming at achieving more stability and predictability in the region, will indeed contribute to the wealth of our peoples.

The BSEC experience

The BSEC experience provides us with important lessons regarding the regional cooperation in the Black Sea area. Some of these lessons may be useful in the future as well. The BSEC was initiated as a forum to facilitate economic relations and private sector in the region. The members agreed upon the deliverables, instead of endless negotiations on more ambitious outcomes. The existing commitments of the members were respected. The BSEC was not an alternative to other regional integration frameworks; but it was a complementary scheme. So, the agreement was easily reached on the basics. As a result of emerging needs, the scope of the cooperation was extended at later stages. Now the organization is the most inclusive and the only full-fledged economic cooperation organization in our region. It has a unique potential to develop cooperation among its members in a whole range of areas from energy, environment, transport to the fight against organized crime.

It was inevitable for the Black Sea Economic Cooperation initiative to comprise States other than the coastal ones, because the Black Sea is an integral part of the Mediterranean Sea and the Balkan and the Caucasian countries also have their interests in the Greater Black Sea region. The Black Sea cannot be isolated from these three regions, as regards economic activity and interaction.

We must bear in mind that the BSEC was an economic cooperation initiative and it has been active in this field, therefore political cooperation is not within the scope of this organization. Nevertheless, as an organization aiming at economic cooperation and facilitation of trade and investments, it also contributes to political cooperation. We must not forget that the economic growth and increasing wealth in the regions will also contribute, to a certain extent, to the resolution of conflicts. The basis of stability and peace is the confidence. Better economic relations and interdependence is, in most cases, one of the main ingredients of better relations between countries. Similarly, mutually beneficial economic ties diminish the potential threats to security.

Cooperation for stability

For peace and security in the region, first and foremost the coastal countries must continue the dialogue and the cooperation with a view to enhancing the stability. Mutual understanding can only be achieved through dialogue and the mutual confidence emerges through continuation of this dialogue.

The Black Sea is important for the international maritime transport and major part of it has international water status. Moreover, its position regarding energy routes makes it all the more important. Therefore, some other non-coastal countries also have interest in the stability of the region. Their interests should also be taken into consideration. In the context of this dialogue, existing structures and arrangements should also be respected. This dialogue of the coastal States should be a forum to complement the existing structures and arrangements.

Montreux  Convention

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

For the purpose of our discussion, the relevant section of the Montreux Convention  is the provisions that pertain to this limitation. This should not be perceived as an impediment to cooperation with non-littoral countries. It aimed at provideing and preserveing 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-littoral countries could be summarized as follows: 

  • The aggregate tonnage of the vessels of the non-Black Sea Powers shall not exceed 30 000 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.
  • 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.

With the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, The Black Sea has now become a NATO sea as well. This development may have implications on the naval exercises to be carried out in the

Montreux Convention has established in the Black Sea a balance that satisfied all parties to the Convention. Despite the fact the Convention was signed for a period of 20 year 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 treaty was highlighted in the media and there were some discussions, but nobody questioned its validity or appropriateness.

Basically, the security concerns of the coastal 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-coastal States. On the other hand, the free circulation of civil vessels is also guaranteed.Turkey has always acted with care and diligence for the implementation of the treaty.

I believe the wisdom underlying the negotiations of Montreux Treaty can shed light for the future dialogue regarding the security and stability in the Black Sea Region. Arrangement respecting and fulfilling the expectations of the coastal States, while also involving the non-coastal States and taking into consideration their interests to the possible extent, have greater chance for success.

Existing initiatives

There are already some existing initiatives involving coastal States. These are “Operation Black Sea Harmony” and “Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group”. In addition, a new initiative of “Black Sea Defence Ministerial Process” has also been launched by Turkey recently. These initiatives involving mainly the coastal countries have so far given positive results in the field of naval cooperation. Their continuation depends on the continuous support of the involved countries.

The Georgian crisis has also shown the importance of transparent dialogue mechanisms. If mechanisms of regular dialogue are maintained, the potential conflicts can be prevented. Some may argue the duplication of the initiatives; nevertheless the duplication may be better than absence of dialogue mechanisms when the need arises.

In this context, Turkey has always been in favour of cooperation of the coastal States in the field of security. In a similar manner and with same considerations, after the Georgian crisis, Turkey also proposed its “Platform for Stability and Cooperation in the Caucasus”. Needles to say, the support of the all concerned States is vital for a successful outcome. Additionally, the support of the other regional countries in the Black Sea basin, will also contribute to success of these processes. Turkey, as regional power, is keen to fulfil its responsibility to ensure peace and security in its region and expects the cooperation of other countries of the region.

EU and THE Black Sea

An analysis on the Black Sea will not be complete without touching upon the EU projects regarding the Black Sea. After the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, the Black Sea has entered the field of the legitimate interest of EU. As a result of it, the EU developed first a project called Black Sea Synergy. This project was aimed at closer interaction among the countries of the Black Sea basin. The European Parliament adopted on 10 July 2008 a Resolution on the EU Commission’s 2007 Enlargement Strategy Paper. In this Resolution there is a specific reference to the Black Sea region and more specifically to the BSEC. It reiterates 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”. The EU believes that such a multilateral framework would offer the countries involved the possibility of strengthening their cooperation with the EU across a wide variety of policy fields.

These initiatives should not be received with a negative prejudice. However the major player of the Black Sea basin are the Russian Federation and Turkey. A project that is drawn up without full cooperation since the outset with these two countries carries the risk of lesser cooperation by them. I presume that the EU may have thought that the presence in the EU of three BSEC countries, namely Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.was sufficient. Whether it was sufficient will depend on how both the Black Sea Synergy and the Union for the Black Sea will take shape. Because the Russian Federation does not like to be served a food that is cooked elsewhere and Turkey has a long history of disillusionment with the EU.

The Georgian Crisis in the context of the Black Sea

The Caucasus cannot be separated from the Black Sea. The recent developments about the energy routes have only underlined this fact. The situation in Caucasus can easily affect the adjacent regions. If there is peace and stability in the Caucasus, this means allocation of the resources of the region to the improvement of infrastructure and growth of economies, through more trade and investment. Otherwise, the region risks isolation from the world and deprivation from advantages of global economy.

The Caucasus is a key part of the Black Sea region. All countries of the Black Sea region shall benefit from the peaceful settlement of the Georgian crisis. This conflict has been a most unfortunate incident for the whole of the region. If we can take the correct lessons, we can avoid repetitions of similar crisis.

During last two decades, our region has gained a good momentum as regards trade and investments, our economies are growing and our peoples are benefiting. The presence and the success of the ICBSS, as well as those of other institutions of the BSEC, constitute an evidence of the fact that the Black sea is proving its separate identity.

I do not think that anybody would wish to return to the days of polarization and insecurity in the region. I do not think either that anybody would wish re-enactment of barriers to trade and circulations.

In this context, as regional countries, primarily we should provide our support to the concerned parties in the process of settlement of this dispute. In addition we should do our best to establish mechanisms in order to prevent repetition of such crisis. If we fail to resolve our problems, we risk polarization in the region and losing the Black Sea identity we have created.


When I will look at the Black Sea again through the window of my house in my hometown, I will also remember this gathering and the warm welcome extended to us by our Greek hosts. I hope one day we also recall the Georgian crisis as an unfortunate parenthesis of the past.

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