International flights to Abkhazia would break agreements: UN aviation agency
By Temuri Kiguradze
Friday, June 13
The breakaway region of Abkhazia is looking to 2014, when locals expect the Winter Olympics in a nearby Russian resort town to give the region an economic boost. To get ready, the airport in the de facto capital of Sokhumi is undergoing repairs in the hope of receiving international flights laden with visitors and cargo.
But Georgian officials say any unauthorized business in the separatist enclave is illegal: “Russian planes that conduct flights to Sokhumi will be arrested in European or other countries,” the director of the Georgian aviation agency told reporters yesterday.
A representative of the UN’s aviation agency confirms that Abkhazia is unlikely get the green light for international flights.
Any airline which flies to Sokhumi without permission from Georgian aviation authorities would violate a bedrock international convention, said George Firican, the deputy director of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regional office.
“Sokhumi has appealed to us several times with the request to recognize their control over the airspace, and never got a reply, because we consider that only [the Georgian aviation authority] has the right to manage the flights on this territory,” he told the Messenger.
Maxim Gvinjia, a deputy foreign minister in the separatist Abkhaz administration, called the ICAO stance “unjustified,” and said Sokhumi’s airport would still manage to profit from the anticipated Sochi Olympics boom.
“There are many ways to avoid these restrictions,” said Gvinjia. “Northern Cyprus and Taiwan are also unrecognized republics, but I have been there by plane.”
Firican, the ICAO regional deputy director, said Taiwan is “totally different” because it was once a UN member, and the People’s Republic of China does not object to the flights. Only Turkey flies to Northern Cyprus; an Azerbaijani charter flight once made the trip, but after official protest from the ICAO Baku promised it would not happen again.
His organization doesn’t have the power to impose sanctions, Firican said, but suggested it is unlikely anyone—including Russia—would flout the rules.
There are just three ways flights from Russia could land in Abkhazia: if Abkhazia is recognized as an independent state by a majority of UN countries, if Tbilisi gives permission, or if Moscow turns a blind eye to “pirate flights” in violation of international rules.
Firican said the third possibility would be a surprise: “Russia has been a good student so far.”
Georgia requested an international ban on flights to Abkhazia after the region broke away in the early 1990s. Economic sanctions imposed by the Commonwealth of Independent States soon followed.
Russia announced in March it would withdraw from the sanctions regime, though analysts say the step was largely a formality.
“Lifting the ban will not alter economic, trade, and transport relations between Russia and Abkhazia, as those were in place despite the sanctions,” an analyst with Eurasia Group in New York, Ana Jelenkovic, said at the time.
Moscow later moved to formalize ties with the separatist authorities in Abkhazia, and in May the Krasnodar region of Russia signed an agreement with Abkhazia on cooperating on preparation works for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The de facto Abkhaz president, speaking to the Russian news agency Interfax, said that cooperation would involve using Abkhazian ports and airfields to transport passengers and building materials.
Tbilisi is staunchly opposed to any Abkhazian economic involvement in the Sochi Winter Olympics, but its protests have so far had limited practical effect.
Gvinjia, the Abkhaz de facto deputy foreign minister, said Georgia is trying to obstruct Abkhazia’s economic development.