Tensions mount by the shores of the Black Sea
The struggle between East and West is set to envelop the entire region
during the coming year

DOUG SAUNDERS
January 2, 2008

If, in the coming year, you find yourself relaxing on the beach in the
Bulgarian resort of Bourgas on Europe's little-noticed east coast, you
may soon realize that you are in the centre of one of the world's most
lavish and portentous conflicts, one that involves a dozen countries
and the nuclear powers of the Cold War and is likely to produce
explosions in 2008.
Look up the coast, just to the north, and you will see U.S. bombers
and surveillance planes taking off in increasing numbers from
Bulgarian and Romanian seaside bases as the U.S. and NATO militaries
shift their major installations
From Germany to locations along the formerly communist Black Sea
coast. In 2008, a year after the European Union added Bulgaria and
Romania, two former Warsaw Pact nations, to its membership, NATO will
make its most aggressive bids to win over the rest of the region. The
North Atlantic Treaty Organization's annual conference will be held
near the sea in Romania, and the most explosive item on the agenda
will be the proposed membership of Georgia - a Black Sea country that,
if it joins, will expand the territory of this Cold War military
alliance to the deep interior of the former Soviet Union.
Moscow is already reacting with anger to the expanding presence of
NATO on these shores, which had previously been entirely within
Russia's sphere of influence (only Turkey has traditionally been a
NATO member). Half a dozen "frozen conflicts" in Georgia, Ukraine,
Azerbaijan and Moldova appear ready to erupt into full-scale secession
wars in the coming year; in every case, the militant movements appear
to have Russian backing.
For the 100 million people who live around the shores of the Black
Sea, 2008 may well feel like a return to the Cold War. This time,
though, it's not clear which side any nation, any region or any people
are on: Like South America or Southeast Asia during that previous
Washington-Moscow standoff, the Black Sea region has become an
endlessly contested ground, subject to shifting influences as money
and weapons are dumped into unsuspecting populations.
In recent years, that conflict has played itself out most visibly in
Ukraine, whose elections have been dramatic showdowns between
Russian-supported forces and Western-backed democracy movements. This
year ended with pro-Western Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who took
office on Dec. 18, accusing Moscow of actively funding the
opposition's parties.
The struggle between East and West is about to envelop the entire
Black Sea region during the coming year, often with military
implications.
The sparring is likely to begin as early as Saturday, when Georgia's
five million citizens go to the polls in a presidential election and a
referendum on the country's proposed NATO membership. The vote was
called after weeks of violent mass demonstrations in November against
pro-American president Mikheil Saakashvili. The demonstrations, which
Mr. Saakashvili and a number of outside organizations say were backed
by Russia, were met with brutal police repression. Georgia, like
Ukraine, appears to be divided in half between voters who support the
European Union and NATO and those who prefer a return to Moscow's
influence.
But there are even deeper divisions in Georgia, and in a number of its
Black Sea neighbours. Breakaway regions, which hope to form their own
nations - usually because their people are more loyal to Russia - have
seen low-level conflicts fraught with occasional bombings and acts of
violence for years. In 2008, any one of them could become full-scale
war.
Georgia's troubled regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become
increasingly violent in recent months, their independence movements
staging bolder attacks against government facilities. Neighbouring
Azerbaijan has had growing frictions in its region of
Nagorno-Karabakh. And on the other side of the Black Sea, the Moldovan
breakaway region of Transnistria, which is loyal to Russia, has seen
increasing tensions.
These landlocked slivers of Black Sea real estate could well become
conflict zones this year, for reasons rooted in another landlocked
country that lies closer to the Adriatic Sea. In late January or early
February, the Serbian province of Kosovo is likely to declare
independence, an act that is backed by the European Union and the
United States.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that if Serbia, a
Slavic-speaking country, loses its disputed Albanian-majority province
to Western influences, it will have a hard time guaranteeing the
integrity of Georgia and Moldova. Many observers see this as a thinly
veiled threat: If Kosovo goes, then so goes Abkhazia, South Ossetia,
Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. Some observers already say that
arms are flowing into these breakaway regions.
"The chance of some kind of armed flare-up in at least one of those
conflict zones in the coming year is disturbingly high," says Thomas
de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Institute for War and Peace
Reporting. "The consequences could be catastrophic."
Why are Brussels, Washington and Moscow devoting so much time, money
and armaments to a stretch of shoreline that has previously languished
in uneasy obscurity? Some of it has to do with geography: Georgia,
Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan sit near the border of Iran, and there
is a strong desire to have a Western-loyal buffer of nations and
defence installations surrounding this constant site of conflict.
Another reason might become visible if you sit long enough on the
beach in Bourgas.
Further out to sea, you might spot Russian ships laying an enormous
undersea pipeline, known as South Stream, that will carry billions of
cubic metres of natural gas from Russia, across the 900-kilometre
width of the Black Sea to Bulgaria, and on to energy-hungry Western
Europe.
And just behind you, running up the Bulgarian shore, will be the tail
end of South Stream's Western-funded competitor, known as Nabucco,
which carries equally enormous amounts of gas from Iran and Central
Asia through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey before it
supplies Europe. These pipelines, carrying Europe's Russian fuel
supply and its hard-fought Iranian alternative, provide the economic
backdrop for this set of emerging conflicts.
Europe is enormously reliant on Russian gas and oil to heat its homes
- some countries, such as Germany and Italy, are so completely
dependent that they would face an immediate crisis if the pipelines
from Russia were curtailed. (This occurred briefly in 2006, during a
dispute between Russia and Belarus over pipeline rights, and caused a
sizable shock.) As a result, the supplies of petroleum and gas from
the Adriatic Sea through Azerbaijan and from Iran are considered
vital. (This is an important reason why the EU has been reluctant to
participate fully in sanctions against Iran over alleged nuclear
weapons activity.)
So much of this dispute - though not all of it, as some would suggest
- is rooted in the West's need for energy security. If non-Russian
sources of fuel are to be securely provided, then the loyalty of the
countries to the east, south and west of the Black Sea is vital. From
Moscow's perspective, if its continued dominance is to be maintained
(and good prices upheld for its supplies), then pipelines will need to
pass through the west, north and east of the Black Sea.
Some countries, notably Bulgaria and Romania, stand to benefit either
way: Both Adriatic-Iranian oil pipelines and Russia's new pipes will
enter Europe through their impoverished territory.
As you relax on the beige sands of Bourgas - an increasingly popular
vacation getaway for both Central Europeans and for Russians - these
rising tensions might be visible along the shoreline and across the
water. But they're likely to seem especially bizarre when you return
to your hotel, which is almost certain to have EU flags flying on its
awning - and to be owned by Russian tycoons.
*****
The push for independence
Autonomous aspirations of these three Black Sea regions threaten to
flare up in the coming year. TRANSNISTRIA, MOLDOVA A sliver of land on
the Nistria River, Transnistria broke away from Moldova in September
of 1990. A brief war killed hundreds before Russian troops
intervened. The region of 550,000 people is dominated by
Russian-speaking Slavs, who pressed for independence fearing Moldova's
Romanian-speaking majority would one day join Romania to the
south. Around 1,200 Russian troops remain. Transnistria covers
one-eighth of Moldovan territory but is home to the bulk of Moldova's
industrial base.
ABKHAZIA AND SOUTH OSSETIA, GEORGIA Home to 200,000 people, Abkhazia
is sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains and was
once a renowned tourist destination. It fought a 1992-93 war against
Georgia and effectively rules itself. It was isolated for years after
the war but has since forged closer ties with Russia, which has given
Abkhaz residents passports and pensions. South Ossetia fought to throw
off Georgian rule in the early 1990s. A ceasefire was signed but the
violence has threatened to reignite. Russia has peacekeepers in both
regions.
NAGORNO-KARABAKH,
AZERBAIJAN
Sporadic clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azeri and local ethnic
Armenian irregulars began in 1998, escalating by 1992 into full-scale
hostilities between Azeri forces and troops from Armenia. About 35,000
people died and hundreds of thousands fled before a ceasefire was
signed in 1994. The territory remains part of Azerbaijan but is
controlled by Armenian forces. A major BP-led pipeline linking
Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea oil fields to world markets passes a few
kilometres from the conflict zone.
Source: Reuters News Agency