RFE/RL Moldovan Service Correspondent Sabina Fati recently completed a three-month reporting tour around the Black Sea coast that took her through Romania, Ukraine, Crimea, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey. Along the way she blogged and took photos and video of the people she met and places she visited. Here are some of her impressions from her trip.
During my three-month journey around the Black Sea, I noticed that virtually no connections exist between the coastal countries. Except for the countries that share a history as part of the Soviet Union, people in countries with a Black Sea coast either don’t know or care to know much about each other, or despise each other because of historic frictions. You can’t buy the Ukrainian currency, the hryvna, in Constanta, Romania, and you won’t find Romanian lei beyond the Dniester River. There are no regular transportation routes between Romanian and Bulgarian ports and Ukrainian ones--neither by land nor by sea. There are occasional bus shuttles only between Constanta and Odessa, or Varna and Constanta. No means of transportation exists between Russia and Georgia, which are separated by Abkhazia; one would need to drive 24 hours around the entire Caucasus in order to get from Sochi in Russia to Batumi in Georgia, even though they’re only separated by 400 kilometers and it would only take six hours by train or bus if they were available for travel between the cities.
The Black Sea landscape is marked by Russian politics and Russia’s expansionist policies.Anyone who enters Abkhazia from the Russian side is not welcome in Georgia. By the same token Georgian citizens, except for those who live along the border, are not allowed to travel to Abkhazia, a breakaway republic that left Georgia 20 years ago but is still considered by Georgia and most countries to be Georgian territory.
Also, 180 kilometers separate Mariupol in Ukraine from Rostov-on-Don in Russia, but the border is closed because of the war in eastern Ukraine, so I needed to travel 1,000 kilometers and cross the border via Kharkiv in order to set foot on the land where the Don River spills into the Black Sea. And in order to enter Crimea I had to travel round the entire Ukrainian seacoast, because if you cross the border onto the peninsula with a Russian visa, you will be banned from returning to Ukraine.
In Kerch on the eastern tip of the Crimean peninsula, Russia continues to maintain checkpoints for entry and exit similar to border checkpoints. While in Kerch I saw troops on the move every day and combat helicopters flying at low altitudes. In Yalta and Sevastopol patriotic tourism from Russia is gaining momentum, while in Simferopol, Bakhchisaray, and surrounding villages, there are reports of arrests and kidnappings of the indigenous Tatar people under the pretext of suspicion of terrorism.
Since Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, the Crimean Tatars are experiencing what they describe as their second major tragedy in the past 100 years. In 1944 they were deported to Central Asia on Stalin’s orders and were banned from ever returning to the peninsula. Many of them returned in 1989-1991 and tried to reclaim their homes or build new ones. My meeting with the Tatars was complicated to arrange because we had to find a secure place to hold it. I’m sure I was under surveillance. There was always someone one step behind me who apparently had the exact same itinerary that day.
Turkey is the sole ally of the Crimean Tatars (they share a related Turkic language and religion of Islam), according to Zafer Karatay, a documentary filmmaker and leader of Crimean Tatar refugees in Turkey. But what can Ankara do for them, given its “numerous other problems,” he asks. Sitting in a garden in Istanbul, Karatay told me he believes the Tatar lobby is growing strong in Ankara and Istanbul: in the 1980s there were just three Tatar organizations in Turkey and now they number 50.
Karatay points to past and present gestures of support for Crimean Tatars from Turkish authorities as a positive sign. But the reality is that the relationship with Moscow takes precedence. The Turkish economy depends on Russian energy resources, Russian tourists filling Turkish seaside resorts, and Turkish fruit and vegetable exports to Russia.
For Ankara, the relationship with Moscow is more important than helping the Crimean Tatars, because the Turkish economy depends on Russian energy resources, on Russian tourists at Turkish seaside resorts, and the amount of fruit and vegetables that Turkey can sell on the other side of the Black Sea.
Turkey long ago gave up its competition with Russia for supremacy in the Black Sea region, but the Turks hold the key to the Bosporus, which they have used on a few occasions against NATO allies to please Moscow. The Black Sea coast is no longer as important for Ankara, which now looks towards the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Bulgaria maintains its tradition of friendship with Russia, and huge monuments honoring the Red Army still dominate Bulgarian cities on the seaside. Georgia maintains a balance of fine gradation between Russia and the West, and Russian propaganda competes with Islamist propaganda in the Ajaran region with its capital in Batumi. Ukraine is being ground down in a war of attrition on its border with Russia and tries to lean westward, while internal fighting and economic hardship pull the country down. Romania would like to take advantage of regional security concerns to bulk up its own defenses.
The Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization launched a project to build a ring road around the Black Sea 25 years ago, but the initiative was never realized. With the current geopolitics being what they are, it is unlikely any such unifying project will be revived any time soon. The geography of the Black Sea should unite those who live there, but instead politics divide people and they suffer as a result.