Challenges For The Black Sea Region



The wider Black Sea region is geographically predestined to be contested. This pattern has been many times confirmed in its restless history. More recently, after the end of the Cold War, its position has quite astonishingly led to years of neglect. Ronald Asmus and Bruce Jackson have not hesitated to name the wider Black Sea region the Bermuda Triangle of Western strategic studies. Moreover, being located at the crossroads of the European, Eurasian, and Middle Eastern security areas, the entire region has also appeared outside the strategic perspective of the other two security entities. (1)

Within the new post-bipolar conditions of world order, regionalization has been seen as a positive and promising response to contemporary problems and challenges. Regional cooperation has been suggested to be particularly valuable in the regions which undergo fundamental political and economic transformations, as well as in the areas which might originally lack mutual trust and confidence. Several authors have expressed their doubts whether the Black Sea area actually constitutes a region, arguing that it makes little sense geographically, historically, or even culturally. However, directly facing the real challenges such ideas may appear rather as a distant intellectual exercise. Although accepting that the Black Sea states do not show any dominant common regional identity, I would argue that the area shares a lot of economic and political incentives, which create appropriate opportunities, even needs, for regional cooperation. The creation of BSEC in 1992 is a clear demonstration of such claim. (2)

Moreover regions are also constructed and their identities may develop around the frameworks of political and economic cooperation. Original common identity may be advantageous but does not seem to be a necessary precondition of a successful institutionalization of a regional cooperation. Looking at the BSEC from this perspective Tunç Aybak shows, that this organization also reflects a new component of the post-Cold War regionalism which is a dynamics coming from below, from the support of civil society, and consequently essentially complementing the political endeavours of forming regional identities. BSEC is a comprehensive and multidimensional regional organization, facilitating frequent vertical, horizontal, bilateral and multilateral contacts and transactions at different levels of society (including governments, parliaments, the private sector, local governments, NGOs, academic and civic institutions). (3)

Shared regional interests, which have provided challenges for the BSEC, could be for the purpose of this article divided into three categories. The first sphere is economic, which still dominates the BSEC agenda. It has been natural to the extent that a strengthening of rational trade relations is arguably the easiest way to establish closer ties between states. Turkey, which originally developed the idea of BSEC at the beginning of the 1990s, had an apparent interest in establishing a peaceful and stable neighbourhood in the very uncertain period of the Cold War collapse. Quite similar interests could be found on the side of the other regional market economy – Greece – which also joined the BSEC in its very birth. The rest of the members then could not reject the offered economic and technical assistance that could prove extremely valuable during their painful post-communist transformations. These conditions, which connected two relatively strong market economies with the weak and very often failed post-communist economies, required some specific approach to the liberalization of the regional market. (4) It should be noted here however that such a situation could also be seen as a unique experience, which could possibly be transferred to regions with similar disproportions and structural constraints.

More recently the most significant economic-related issue has become the transportation of energy resources. Although the EU does not seem to be particularly ready to recognize it (5) , the Black Sea is undisputedly an energetic gate to Europe. By 2030 the EU states will import roughly 90 % of oil, 60 % of gas, and 66 % of coal consumptions. (6) More importantly perhaps than the issue of energy dependence as such, appears to be the strategic need to diversify resources as well as transportation routes. Moreover, the energy-related crisis of the beginning of 2006 between Russia on one side and Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova on the other, should also be seen from a geopolitical perspective having in mind at least the increasing pro-European orientation of these post-Soviet states, followed by the increasingly assertive policy of Russia within the context of a similarly increasing European energy dependency on Russia. (7)

Several projects have been mentioned in this context. In terms of oil transport the efficiency of the Baku – Tbilisi - Ceyhan pipeline could be increased through its connection to the Kazakhstan - Azerbaijan oil transport system, which should be improved by the Caspian seabed pipeline. Also the Odessa – Brody pipeline is thought to be expanded in capacity and extended to Poland. As regards to gas, mainly the Shah Deniz reserves seem to be greater than suggested by estimates, which could lead to the increasing capacity of Shah Deniz – Tbilisi – Erzurum and consequently to the scenario where Turkey becomes not only a consumer but also a transit point for Azeri gas. Finally, there is still the unresolved issue of the more appropriate transit of the huge reserves of gas from Turkmenistan. (8)

The second type of incentives for a closer regional cooperation is connected with the potentially unstable security situation. Most obviously, the entire region encompasses four so called 'frozen conflicts' on the territories of Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetia), Armenia and Azerbaijan (Nagorno Karabakh) and Moldova (Transdniestria). (9) The situation seems to be particularly complicated given the fact that post-Soviet space has undergone several changes in last fifteen years or so, since the conflicts were actually frozen. The Russian position has changed gradually from 'disenchantment' after the break up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, through the formulation of the Near Abroad doctrine, towards recently a much more assertive foreign political approach, which has also been partially enabled by the general conditions coming after the 9/11. The status quo in other post-Soviet states was shaken lately by the phenomenon of 'colourful revolutions', which most notably influenced the development in Georgia, which harbours two of the aforementioned conflicts.

After having mentioned the internal problems we should also pay attention to the external security challenges. Indeed, as I already suggested in the introduction, geopolitics cannot be considered as an empty term in the wider Black Sea region. First of all, the BSEC includes two long-term NATO allies (Turkey, Greece) and two relatively fresh post-communist members (Bulgaria, Romania as of 2004). Furthermore, all the other members apart from Russia, which communicates with NATO in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council, have signed the Partnership for Peace. It is certainly not without interest to mention in this context that especially closed security ties have been developed between the US and Georgia. The US substantially helped Georgia to pursue military reform and virtually build functional military forces. (10) Interestingly, Georgian politicians have started to speak about possible NATO membership while the entire issue does not seem to be as unrealistic as it could have been a few years ago. I am mentioning this development not to stress that the NATO enlargement of the former Soviet area (if we do not count a bit specific case of the Baltic States) could be on the cards, but rather to suggest that increased international activity and engagement might also bring along a particular dynamic to the most painful regional security problems. I will argue later that the EU too seems to awaken and take a more active stance. The interests of the US in the region appear to grow, perhaps not only in connection with the fact that the Black sea constitutes a gateway to the Middle East. Most recently American military officials have showed that they consider the South Caucasus as another appropriate place for a part of a prepared Missile Defense System. (11)

Armenia on the other hand is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which was constituted in May 2002 by six former members of the Tashkent Treaty. (12)The three renegades from the Tashkent Treaty Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan have, after leaving the Tashkent Treaty in 1999, revitalized together with Ukraine and Moldova the so called GUUAM (13)group which has tried to countervail Russian geopolitical attempts. The CSTO has shown its geopolitical drive at the summit held in Moscow in June 2005, after which several joint combined exercises in Central Asia have followed. (14)GUAM, on the other hand, received greater western attention which was naturally bolstered by the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. The western orientation was confirmed at the Chisinau summit held in April 2005, where Poland and Romania were also invited to become observers of the GUAM initiative. One year later, in May 2006, GUAM was reorganised at a Kiev summit, and became the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development with major goals defined in terms of energy security and democracy promotion in the Baltic-Black Sea area.

Another external issue influencing the situation in the Black Sea region is the recent discord between both sides of the Atlantic, which have become on a global level visible since the beginning of the war in Iraq. Regarding the Black Sea region we could mention two major problems. First, the US and the major European powers do not share the perception of Russia. Whereas the US still perceives Russia as an opponent in the geopolitical game, France and Germany in particular tend to accept the natural sphere of Russian influence in the former post-Soviet area. The gap seems to be visible on the level of engagement where European powers, although still supporting democratization processes in post-Soviet countries, have been very cautious with their actual involvement which could complicate relations with Russia. Second, the EU does not appear to be willing to continue in the pattern favoured by NATO: 'NATO first the EU follows'. The 'enlargement fatigue' could be in the near future a break by Croatia or, even by Turkey (although highly unlikely), but, as I will later imply, the EU is developing and stressing strategies other than accession. (15)

The previous lines have already opened the final issue which I would like to mention in this paper. Quite obviously, both the economic and security concerns are closely connected with the relations to the EU. Several events could be mentioned as a positive development. Most importantly, the Greek chairmanship of BSEC started the dialogue between the BSEC and the EU in April 2005, which should develop to a closer partnership. Later on this year in August Ukraine and Georgia signed the declaration in the Georgian town of Borjomi, trying to overcome the remaining divisions in the Baltic-Black Sea region which led to the establishing of Community of Democratic Choice at the end of 2005, which, besides Georgia and Ukraine, was also joined by the Baltic States, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, and Slovenia. (16)

I have already mentioned the obvious economic, as well as some security, reasons which should be complemented here at least with the issue of organized crime, that provides a natural incentive for the EU to become more active in the Black Sea region. Other important concerns come from the environmental area, since the ecological situation of the Danube River and the Black Sea itself is nearly catastrophic. In October 2001 the Commission adopted a Communication on environmental co-operation in the Danube - Black Sea Region, (17) and the situation has been further improving through the cooperation of The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, also stimulated by the EU, and The Commission on the protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution. (18) Moreover, with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania at the beginning of this year, the EU has directly reached the Black Sea shores, which was the final step towards a strict environmental regime.

However, as it is obvious even from this text, the problem seems to be that the region is virtually overwhelmed by multilateral arrangements. The EU itself implements three policies towards the non-EU states in the BSEC. First, Turkey and the Balkan states are still part of the enlargement process. Second, Moldova, Ukraine, and the three South Caucasian states have been incorporated into the ambitious project of the European Neighbourhood Policy. (19) Finally, there is a 'strategic partnership' set up between the EU and Russia. (20)Having mentioned this, it should be stressed that the EU lacks any kind of coherent common strategy, while the effect of the ENP is rather uncertain and, among the EU Eastern neighbours, is generally accepted, albeit with certain doubts. On the other hand recent developments, for example on the background of several energy crises, might also suggest that the EU has fully recognized the importance of the Black Sea region and that the original problem of the insufficient natural lobby of the region in Brussels could be overcome.

Regarding the above mentioned challenges, it is more than obvious that the deepening of the so far slowly developing cooperation on the part of the BSEC is fully appropriate. I do not share the view that further cooperation is impossible since the region is so divergent. On the contrary, I would argue that such diversity could become a strategic advantage. Indeed, it is rather astonishing, as Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos too has pointed out, that a region with such a rich cultural (common) heritage has not yet included cultural cooperation in its agenda. (21) Similarly, he is also right to argue that culture might become an uncontested connecting issue, as well as making the BSEC more visible within the region itself. Furthermore, I would also argue that the deepening of the cooperation can be fostered by closer relations with the EU which can be, and hopefully will be, particularly powerful in addressing the domestic transitional and security challenges, as well as most of the trans-national challenges.

* Vít Střítecký is a Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. he is currently doing postgraduate research programme in international security at the University of St. Andrews and PhD candidacy at the Department of IR, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Prague. His research interests include securşty, confilct, and terrorism studies, and the EU's Eastern policies with the geographical focus on the Caucasus.

(1) Ronald, D., Asmus, and Bruce, P., Jackson, ‘The Black Sea and the Frontiers of Freedom: Towards a new Euro-Atlantic Strategy’, Policy Review, June/July 2004

(2) See, for example, Mustafa Aydin, ‘Regional Cooperation in the Black Sea and Integration into Euro-Atlantic Structures’, Perceptions, Volume X, Autumn 2005, pp. 29-30

(3) Tunç Aybak, ‘Interregional Cooperation between the EU and BSEC’, in: Ayşe Güneş-Ayata, Ayça Ergun, and Işil Çelimli (eds), Black Sea Politics: Political Culture and Civil Society in an Unstable Region, I.B. Tauris, London 2005, p. 32

(4) For details see, Serdar Sayan, ‘The contribution of the Black Sea Economic Co-operation organization to regional development’, South East Europe Review, 2/2002, pp. 25-34 or Serdar Sayan, ‘The Black Sea Economic Cooperation Project: A Substitute for or a Complement to Globalization Efforts in the Middle East and the Balkans?’, Working Paper, Economic Research Forum, Cairo 1998, available at

(5) See Vladimir Socor's evaluation of the EU's Green Paper, 'European Union's Energy Paper: a Muffled Call to a Slow Wake up', Euroasia Daily Monitor, 27 March 2006

(6) For details see Commission Staff Working Document annexed to the Green Paper 'A European Strategy for Sustainable, Competitive and Secure Energy, COM(2006)105 final, available at

(7) Fabrizio Tassinari, 'A Synergy for Black Sea Regional Cooperation: Guidelines for the EU Initiative', CEPS Policy Brief, No. 105, June 2006. p.2

(8) See Vladimir Socor's evaluation of the EU's Green Paper, 'European Union's Energy Paper: a Muffled Call to a Slow Wake up', Euroasia Daily Monitor, 27 March 2006

(9) There is a numerous literature written on these problems. For one of a good reviews see, for example, Svatne E. Cornell, 'Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus', Curzon Press, 2001

(10) See, for example, David Darchiashvili, 'Georgian Defense Policy and Military Reform', pp. 117-153, in Bruno Coppieters and Robert Legvold (eds.), Statehood and Security: Georgia after the Rose Revolution, Cambridge MA, 2005

(11) See, Radio Free Europe Newsline, 2 March 2007, at

(12) Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan

(13) In 2002 Uzbekistan withdrew, so it became GUAM

(14) Mihail, E., Ionescu, 'Wider Black Sea Region Cooperation: A Historical Survey', in: The Role of the Wider Black Sea Area in a Future European Security Space, NATO Defence College Occasional Paper, December 2005

(15) Ognyan Minchev, 'Major Interests and Strategies for the Black Sea Region: Framework Analytical Review', Harvard Black Sea Security Program, p. 6 available at

(16) Tassinari (2006), p.2

(17) See, COM (2001) 615 at

(18) For details, see, and

(19) The main instruments of the ENP so called ENP Action Plans as well as other details about the ENP can be found here A theoretical discussion on the ENP as well as some examples of its interpretation can be found in Petr Kratochvíl (ed.), The EU and Its Neighbourhood: Policies, Problems and Priorities, Institute of International Relations, Prague 2006

(20) Also, see Tassinari (2006), p .2

(21) Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos, 'The Black Sea Economic Cooperation', available at