POTI, Georgia – Weeks before Russia invaded Georgia earlier this month, excavators in this key Black Sea port began to lay the ground for a $200 million tax-free zone to triple the port’s capacity and create, Georgian officials said, the Dubai of the Caucasus.
Some of that soft green earth now is occupied by Russian tanks and soldiers camped behind huge, freshly dug trenches, within firing range of ships approaching the port. A second Russian checkpoint is about a mile away, along a river that’s sometimes used to ferry goods into eastern Georgia.
The Russian presence is a stark illustration of how this 150-year-old port, which handles millions of tons of cargo moving between Europe and Central Asia, is now a key pressure point in the standoff between Russia and the West.
The port is functioning normally again, despite numerous news reports to the contrary and the claim by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili that Russia continues “to occupy” Poti.
The Persian Gulf-funded expansion project is now on hold, however, and major questions remain about the Kremlin’s intentions here. On Wednesday the United States shelved plans to unload 38 tons of humanitarian cargo at Poti, not because the port was closed but to avoid a potential confrontation with Moscow. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas delivered its cargo instead to Batumi, 50 miles to the south.
Poti is a key element in a network of seaports, railroads, highways and energy pipelines to Azerbaijan and Armenia that makes Georgia a major transit link between East and West. The U.S. Commerce Department has described the sleepy, working-class town of 50,000 people as the most important port in the mountainous Caucasus region, which stretches east and west along Russia’s southern border.
The expansion of the port has enhanced Georgia’s strategic importance, and some U.S. analysts think that Russia wants to dominate its former Soviet neighbor to seize control of those transportation assets or to stifle Western commerce in the region.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Ariel Cohen of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center in Washington. “What Russia is trying to do is to plug the east-west transportation corridor that includes railroads and pipelines.
“By controlling Poti, they’re controlling the strategic bottleneck of the southern Caucasus.”
After overwhelming Georgia’s military in a brief war that drew condemnation from Western nations, Russia scaled back its military presence under a French-brokered cease-fire pact. But its troops remain scattered in Poti and dozens of other locations throughout the country, prompting U.S. and European officials to accuse the Kremlin of failing to abide fully by the cease-fire.
While Russian forces haven’t stopped cargo from entering or leaving Poti, port officials are worried about what could happen if the forces were provoked or after world attention on Georgia fades.
“Poti is the biggest supplier to Georgia and the region, and they (the Russians) are at the entrance of the city,” said Eduard Machavariani, the port’s director of commerce. “Anytime you don’t know your enemy’s intentions, you have to be a little scared.”