Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September 2014, 13:37 GMT

Georgia: Tbilisi wants EU help for fight with Russia over Abkhazia airport

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 31 March 2010
Cite as EurasiaNet, Georgia: Tbilisi wants EU help for fight with Russia over Abkhazia airport, 31 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4bfd3b6d1e.html [accessed 17 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

March 31, 2010 – 8:00pm, by Nino Patsuria

This article was amended on April 2, 2010 to correct the first name of the deputy chairperson of the Commitee on Foreign Relations and the date of Babushera airport's closure.

Aviation could prove a fresh field for diplomatic conflict between Georgia and Russia after an announcement by the de facto government of breakaway Abkhazia that it plans to reopen an Abkhaz airport with Moscow's assistance. Georgian officials tell EurasiaNet.org that they expect the European Union to help Tbilisi block such assistance – an expectation that the EU has not confirmed.

At a March 20 press conference in Moscow, de facto Abkhaz Prime Minister Sergei Shamba claimed that Russia had granted an international code to Babushera airport, a facility in the Abkhaz capital Sokhumi that has been closed to regular flights since 1993.

Shamba presented the code allocation as part of a plan by the de facto Abkhaz government to upgrade Babushera, including modernization of its air navigation equipment and "other infrastructure," the Abkhaz news agency Apsnypress reported.

Airport codes are alphanumeric identifiers assigned by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations body, for use in setting flight plans. Under ICAO rules, the aviation authorities of an ICAO member-state in which an airport is located must request that an international code be assigned to a facility.

The UN recognizes Abkhazia as part of Georgia, a status that should prevent Russia from requesting a code for the Sokhumi airport. Nonetheless, Shamba's statement has set off alarm bells in Tbilisi.

Georgia charges that the airport code and repair work are part of what it terms Russia's ongoing attempt to annex Abkhazia. Thousands of Russian troops have been stationed in the Black Sea territory since the 2008 Georgia-Russia war as part of a defense agreement with Abkhazia, which Moscow now recognizes as an independent country.

To block the airport's further development, the Georgian government plans to file a complaint against Russia at the ICAO. Georgia's ambassador to the US, Canada and Mexico, Batu Kutelia, will make the case to ICAO Council President Roberto Kobeh González and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on April 22, according to statements made at a recent Georgian parliamentary hearing on the issue.

Tbilisi will demand that Russia lose its ICAO voting rights for having allegedly attempted to assign an international code to an airport located in territory recognized by the UN as part of another state. It will also demand that the ICAO blacklist airlines that fly to Abkhazia without Georgia's consent; a similar demand will be made about companies working on repairs at the Sokhumi airport.

The dispute is one in which Tbilisi appears to expect the European Union to play a supporting role.

Georgia plans to sign an agreement with Brussels on a European Common Aviation Area within the next few months, according to Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri. The agreement would provide for the implementation of EU aviation safety, air traffic and security rules within Georgia, and allow both European and Georgian airlines to fly to Georgian and EU destinations without restrictions.

One senior Georgian foreign ministry official contends that having flights run out of Sokhumi on a schedule not coordinated with air traffic control officials in Tbilisi would undermine that EU agreement.

"Both the ICAO and EU acknowledge Abkhazia as a closed airspace, and if after Georgia enrolls in the EU common airspace [program], an unknown aircraft appears in this allegedly closed airspace and blocks an aircraft flying, for instance, from Brussels to Dehli, it could have fatal results," posited Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Nalbandov.

That stance was echoed by Irakli Kavtaradze, deputy chairperson of the Georgian parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, who believes that EU confirmation that Russia "carries out illegal activities" will prove "decisive" for a vote for ICAO sanctions against Moscow.

In an email response to EurasiaNet.org, however, the head of the European Union's delegation to Georgia, Ambassador Per Eklund, did not state that the EU would intervene in the dispute.

"Georgian airspace issues are ... a matter for Georgia['s] sole responsibility, not a matter for the EU-Georgia civil aviation agreement," Ambassador Eklund wrote.

He underlined that awarding an international code to the Sokhumi airport "should be decided only by the Georgian aviation authorities, as the territory of Abkhazia represents an inseparable part of Georgia ... "

Neither Abkhaz nor Russian officials could be reached to elaborate about their positions on the issue.

The de facto Abkhaz government, however, has long expressed interest in encouraging foreign tourists and investors to visit Abkhazia. The announced plans for the Sokhumi airport would seem to be in keeping with that interest.

Irakli Davitadze, the director of Sakaeronavigatsia, Georgia's air traffic control authority, states that charter flights between Sokhumi and Moscow began last summer, Abkhazia's traditional peak season for tourists from Russia. Davitadze, however, claims that it is impossible to determine what airlines are running the flights.

The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year contacted the ICAO about the alleged flights, but received a denial from Moscow via the ICAO that any flights had been conducted for the period in question. Moscow, however, contends that Russian airlines are justified in flying to Sokhumi since Russia has recognized Abkhazia as a sovereign state, said Irakli Giviashvili, director of the ministry's International Legal Department.

For now, Tbilisi is betting that the international community will eventually persuade Russia to back down from that argument.

"[T]he persistent international pressure will ultimately produce results," claimed Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations Deputy Chairperson Kavtaradze. "It's very difficult to go against the wind always ... even for such a big state as Russia."

Editor's note: Nino Patsuria is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

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