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Cablegate: Georgian Coast Guard Cracks Down On Abkhazia

VZCZCXRO9704
PP RUEHDBU RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHNP RUEHROV RUEHSL RUEHSR
DE RUEHSI #1587/01 2361448
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 241448Z AUG 09
FM AMEMBASSY TBILISI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2085
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHDM/AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS PRIORITY 0037
RUEHZP/AMEMBASSY PANAMA PRIORITY 0020
RUEHPF/AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH PRIORITY 0008
RUEKJCS/OSD WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK PRIORITY 4889

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TBILISI 001587

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/24/2019
TAGS: PREL PBTS PHSA PGOV EWWT ETRD CB FR PM RS
SY, TU, GG
SUBJECT: GEORGIAN COAST GUARD CRACKS DOWN ON ABKHAZIA
SHIPMENTS

Classified By: Ambassador John F. Tefft for Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary and comment. On August 15 and 18 the
Georgian Coast Guard detained two vessels for violations of
the Law on Occupied Territories and other infractions,
including for traveling in restricted Black Sea waters off
the coast of Abkhazia. Although both vessels were stopped
more than 24 nautical miles beyond Georgia's coast, the Coast
Guard maintains both their suspicions of previous criminal
activity and the principle of hot pursuit gave them the
authority to take action. The MFA also asserts the
detentions took place within what Georgia considers its
broader maritime space; FM Vashadze assured the Ambassador
that there was no Georgian intention to take more provocative
actions such as stopping Russian ships. Abkhaz de facto
"president" Bagapsh reacted strongly, issuing an open letter
to the UN, EU and French President Sarkozy accusing Georgia
of destabilizing the situation, demanding international
condemnation of Georgia's action, and threatening vague
consequences otherwise. EU officials, including Special
Representative Morel, took initial interest in the story, but
the lack of any public response by Russia seems to have
reduced concerns. Although the Abkhaz could still carry
through on Bapapsh's threats, including at Geneva, it seems
unlikely at this point. End summary and comment.

THE GEOGRAPHY

2. (SBU) As Georgian Coast Guard sources told EmbOff, the
Georgian government divides the waters off the Georgia into
three zones: territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical
miles from the coast; the contiguous zone, which extends
another 12 nautical miles beyond the territorial waters; and
an exclusive economic zone, which extends from the contiguous
zone in a rough triangle out into the Black Sea. The
economic zone roughly encompasses the area defined by one
imaginary line extending from the Georgia/Russia border and
another such line extending from the Turkey/Georgia border.
The Georgian government calls this area the "maritime space
of Georgia." In terms of maritime jurisdiction, Georgia does
not distinguish the area off the coast of Abkhazia from the
area off the coast of the rest of Georgia. It does consider
the Port of Sukhumi closed, however, and the Law on Occupied
Territories, among other pieces of Georgian law and
regulation, declares movements in and out of Sukhumi that
have not been properly registered with the Georgian
government to be unlawful.

THE INCIDENTS

3. (C) Information on the following incidents was provided by
the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Coast
Guard sources (provided in part to EUR/CARC electronically).
On August 18, the Georgian Coast Guard seized the
Cambodia-flagged "Afro Star," en route from Sukhumi to
Turkey, carrying 1,255 tons of scrap metal. The crew
consisted of seven Syrian citizens. Coast Guard sources told
post they tracked the vessel by radar from Sukhumi; during
the time it was in Georgian territorial waters off Abkhazia,
its Automatic Identification System (AIS) was turned off, in
violation of international regulations. Once it passed
beyond the contiguous zone, it turned its AIS system back on.
Qbeyond the contiguous zone, it turned its AIS system back on.
Somewhere beyond that point, but within the exclusive
economic zone, the Coast Guard, which had evidence of
previous criminal activity on the part of the Afro Star,
stopped the vessel on the basis of that evidence. Upon
searching the boat, it found documentary evidence that it had
entered the Port of Sukhumi; the Coast Guard then took the
vessel into custody at the Port of Poti on that basis. The
Coast Guard noted to post that it had tracked the vessel by
radar from Sukhumi, so it also had the right to stop the
vessel on the basis of hot pursuit. Authorities have opened
an investigation into the ship's possible violation of
Article 322, Part II, sub-paragraph A of the Criminal Code of
Georgia, which concerns the rules for entering the occupied
territories of Georgia.

4. (C) On August 15, the Georgian Coast Guard stopped the
Panama-flagged "Buket," en route from Izmit, Turkey to
Sukhumi, carrying 2,088 tons of gasoline and 700 tons of
diesel fuel. The crew consisted of 13 Turkish and four
Azerbaijani citizens. Coast Guard sources told post they had
evidence of previous criminal activity on the part of the
Buket and therefore stopped it on that basis. In searching

TBILISI 00001587 002 OF 003


the vessel, they found documentary evidence of the vessel's
intention to sail to Sukhumi, and the Coast Guard took the
Buket into custody at the Port of Poti on that basis. The
sources told post that part of the evidence of previous
criminal activity was a pattern of turning off the vessel's
AIS while within Georgia's contiguous zone and territorial
waters off Sukhumi, similar to that shone by the Afro Star.
Authorities have opened an investigation of the same
provision of Georgia law as for the Afro Star.

THE REACTION

5. (SBU) After the August 18 seizure, Abkhaz de facto
"president" Bagapsh reacted swiftly, releasing an open letter
dated the same day. Addressed to the Chairman of the UN
Security Council, John Sawers, the EU High Representative for
the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, and
the President of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, the
letter denounces the August 17 seizure of a tanker sailing
under the Turkish flag, by which he apparently means the
(Panama-flagged) Buket, which had Turkish crew members. It
calls the Georgian act "piracy" and intentional
destabilization and calls on the international community to
assess the incident adequately -- i.e., to declare how
destabilizing it is. Absent such an assessment, the letter
hints that the Abkhaz de facto authorities will reevaluate
their participation in the Geneva talks and the Incident
Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM). It also states
that, unless the international community helps Abkhazia
recover the vessels and their cargoes, the de facto
authorities reserve "the right to undertake proportional
measures on protecting the cargoes going to Abkhazia, and
lays the blame for possible consequences on the Georgian
side."

6. (C) Shortly after Bagapsh's letter appeared, Head of the
EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) Hansjoerg Haber noted that the
de facto authorities had not appealed to the Russian
Federation for assistance in this matter, and that Russia had
not reacted in any official capacity. To Haber, this
suggested that Bagapsh's vague threat of retaliation was an
empty one. An EU official in Tbilisi said on August 24 that
fairly senior EU officials, including Special Representative
Pierre Morel, initially expressed concerns about the
situation, but the lack of any further developments since the
letter appeared served to reduce anxieties. The fact that
such seizures have happened before, without any significant
consequences, was also reassuring. Morel, who is a French
diplomat, was apparently especially concerned because
President Sarkozy was one of the addressees. At this point,
the official said that the EU is unlikely to respond to the
letter.

THE JUSTIFICATION

7. (SBU) In a non-paper (provided to EUR/CARC
electronically), the Georgian MFA outlined the government's
legal argument in support of its actions. Citing Article 2
of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the paper notes
the principle of a state having sovereignty over adjacent
waters. Citing Article 3 of the Georgian constitution and
Article 15 of the Law on Maritime Space, it explains the
government's definition of the maritime territory under
Georgian jurisdiction. Citing the Georgian Law on State
QGeorgian jurisdiction. Citing the Georgian Law on State
Borders, it notes the general principle that unauthorized
travel into Georgian waters is a violation. Citing Georgian
Presidential Decrees 140 (1996) and 313 (2004) and Article 2
of the Law on Occupied Territories, it indicates that the
waters off Abkhazia in particular are closed to all
navigation. Finally, citing Article 111 of the UN
Convention, it takes note of the principle of "hot pursuit."
When the Ambassador asked FM Vashadze about the incidents,
the Foreign Minister noted that these actions were not new
and suggested that the Georgians would not take any
provocative acts such as stopping Russian vessels attempting
to enter the port of Sukhumi.

COMMENT: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOT MUCH?

8. (C) These incidents are not the first such cases of
Georgia seizing vessels bound to or from Abkhazia. The Coast
Guard, for example, provided a list of nine other such
incidents from 2007 to the present. What seems to be
different in this case, and therefore to have gotten the

TBILISI 00001587 003 OF 003


attention of some, is the strongly worded reaction of de
facto "president" Bagapsh. Any follow-through from Bagapsh
on his threats, either on the Black Sea or the Geneva
talks/IPRM context, would of course be significant. Judging
from the relative lack of reaction from the Russian side,
however -- the one country in the region that would
presumably agree with Bagapsh's assessment of the incidents
as violations of Abkhazia's "sovereignty" -- it seems likely
that his bluster was meant more for domestic political
consumption than anythin else, as Abkhazia prepares for its
"presidential" elections in December.
TEFFT

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