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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Real Benetton, Fake IKEA, No Fuel

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A lot of people have lost money — lots of money,” a despondent official told me in Abkhazia last week after Georgian coast guards seized a ship carrying fuel bound for the disputed coastal region. Georgia said the Turkish tanker, which was crossing the Black Sea under a Panamanian flag, had broken a law banning any commercial activity in Abkhazia without Georgian permission. The Georgian authorities have been trying to put the squeeze on the recalcitrant Abkhaz secessionists by punishing them economically, although it has been argued that this is not exactly the best way to convince people that they want to be part of your country.

In the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, there was anxious talk of gasoline stockpiling and imminent shortages, while on the road from Sukhumi to Gali in the north, none of the gas stations had any fuel to sell. The Georgians’ strong-arm tactics seemed to be having an effect: Abkhaz taxi drivers were cursing them as devils and degenerates. “They just don’t want us to live,” one snarled as he searched for a gasoline refill. The Abkhaz authorities called the ship’s seizure “piracy” and threatened to use force to prevent it happening again.

Several ships carrying goods across the Black Sea to and from Abkhazia have been impounded for alleged smuggling this year. “The Turks don’t care about politics,” the Abkhaz official told me. “They just want to do business.” But the economic lifeline is precarious, and this isn’t the first dispute about Turks doing business under an Abkhaz regime, which the Georgian government considers to be a cabal of ethnic cleansers and Russian puppets. Earlier this year, workers at Benetton fashion stores in Georgia went on strike after the Turkish arm of the company opened a franchise in Sukhumi. The Georgians even raised the issue with Turkey at the diplomatic level, as they sought to frustrate Abkhaz desires for chic Italian knitwear.

In what initially appeared to be a resounding victory for the government in Tbilisi, the shop was quickly shut, causing the Abkhaz to accuse the Georgians of trying to suffocate them. “Any initiatives and any positive changes in our republic cause anger in Georgia,” the mayor of Sukhumi, Alias Labakhua, said at the time. But as I was informed by a gleeful Abkhaz recently, the Benetton store is now trading again, in what looks like a single-digit salute to Tbilisi.

There are also shops in Sukhumi bearing the corporate logos of IKEA and the Mango fashion chain, although these appear to be fakes. Russian firms are investing, however, and the Abkhaz argue that Georgia is effectively pushing them into Moscow’s embrace by preventing them from establishing economic relations with European countries across the Black Sea.

“It’s understandable that Russia’s role here is strong, but it’s not entirely our choice,” insists independent Abkhaz journalist Inal Khasig. Moscow already controls the disputed region’s borders, its railway and its airport, and there are fears that Abkhazia could effectively be assimilated if the Russians buy the aspiring republic wholesale.

One Turkish firm has now announced that it will stop supplying fuel to Abkhazia because it’s no longer worth the risk, but other sanctions-busters remain undaunted. At the Sukhumi docks a couple of days after the tanker was seized, cargo was being unloaded from another Turkish ship. This is a sign that although Georgia’s blockade might be hurting Abkhazia, devious businessmen will continue trying to break the embargo as long as they can still make some money out of it.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi. Richard Lourie is on vacation.