Straddling Europe and Asia, the Black Sea links north to south and east and west with oil, gas, transport and trade routes. It is also often a zone of national confrontations. In the Summer of 2011 I set out from Istanbul to travel around the shores of this vast land-locked sea. My journey started the with a drive up to Edirne near the Turkish-Greek border to watch one of the oldest sporting events in the world; the oil wrestling contest of Kırkpınar.
If you live in Turkey, it is a usual thing to feel male domination in many parts of daily life. It is an essential duty for a man to prove his masculinity here. Kırkpınar is probably the most masculine sporting event in Turkey.
Changing direction, turning eastwards along Turkey‘s Black Sea coastline I made a stop in Trabzon. For Centuries, Trabzon was a melting pot of religions, languages and cul- tures and was located on the historical Silk Road. During the Ottoman period, Trabzon, because of the importance of its port, became a focal point of trade to Iran and the Caucasus. My trip then took me to the Black Sea coast of Georgia.
I was curious to see Saakashvili‘s “wonderland city” Batumi. After the Sheraton, the President recently inaugurated the new Radisson Hotel and it‘s modern architecture showing how prosperous and stable Georgia can be for its foreign investors. What was the popularity of a man who had seven years ago thrown down the Shevardnadze regime with more than 96% of the votes cast. What was the country like nowadays along the coast? Did it all look modern and aesthetically prosperous like Batumi or was it just a vitrine for Saakashvili‘s economical and political allies? After spending some time in Georgia,
It was time to head towards Abkhazia and see how much of a Russian influence was in the disputed political entity. The 1992-1993 War in Abkhazia that resulted in a Georgian military defeat, de-facto independence of Abkhazia and the mass exodus and ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population from Abkhazia. In spite of the 1994 ceasefire agreement and years of negotiations, the status dispute has not been resolved, and despite the long-term presence of a United Nations monitoring force and a Russian-dominated CIS peacekeeping operation, the conflict has flared up on several occasions. In August 2008, the sides again fought during the South Ossetia War, which was followed by the formal recognition of Abkhazia by Russia, the annulment of the 1994 cease fire agreement and the termination of the UN and CIS missions.
After being in Abkhazia I headed towards Sochi, Russia. What to expect from this city just a couple of years away from welcoming the winter Olympics games other than a giant construction site and a good amount of tourist from all over the country. In fact new residency buildings, new roads, new shops and restaurants are rising from the ground along with illegal expropriation, endless construction sites and illegal dumping of waste. Every summer, Sochi plays host to the political allies of the President and it‘s Prime Minister who both spend quality time in their dachas. Today there are really two Sochis — an up-and-coming, well-heeled playground of the rich and famous attracted by the presence of government bigwigs like Putin and the billions of dollars being sunk into Olympic construction projects, and a slightly seedy, cheap and cheerful resort that smells of decay, poor service and tiredness that relies on the less affluent to sustain it.
I continued on to Novorossiysk, Russia‘s main port on the Black Sea and the leading port for importing grain. Honoured with the title “Hero City”, the town was occupied by the Wehrmacht in 1942, but a small unit of Soviet sailors defended one part of the town, known as Malaya Zemlya, for 225 days until it was liberated by the Red Army on September 16, 1943. The heroic defense of the port by the sailors allowed the Soviets to retain possession of the city‘s bay, which prevented the Germans from using the port for supply shipments.
The final stop on this trip along the Black Sea was Crimea. Back in the 19th century Yalta was an exclusive resort founded on the Russian aristocracy‘s struggle with tuberculosis, then a 20th century workers‘ paradise where models of the Soviet citizens frolicked between concrete sanatoriums and pebbly beaches. It would be easy now a days to make fun of Yalta and it‘s scenery. Twinned with the english seaside town of Margate, it‘s an easy satirical target, with all the speak-your-weight and test-your-punch machines lining it‘s waterfront promenade.
There is also the gob-smacking night-scene, when hundreds of meters of crinolines, powdered wigs, spiky leather jackets, Harley Davidson motorbikes and more are lined up as souvenir-photo props. It‘s a great celebration of the garishness and it‘s hard not to see Martin Parr kitch everywhere you go along nab Lenina. Gazing up at yet another statue of Lenin in the Crimea, you‘re forced to reflect that the socialist leader could rarely have been in such luxuriant surroundings even if he now has to share the scene with a McDonald‘s restaurant.
The Black Sea region is coming into its own – but it is a contested and sometimes dangerous neighbourhood. It has undergone countless political transformations over time. And now, once again, it is becoming the subject of an intense debate. This reflects the changing dynamics of the Black Sea countries and the complex realities of their politics and conflicts, economies and societies. Geography, foreign interest in the region, and the areas relationship with the rest of the world, are clues to explaining it‘s on-going resurgence. Straddling Europe and Asia, the Black Sea links north to south and east to west. Oil, gas, transport and trade routes are all crucial in explaining its increasing relevance.
With this road trip around the Black Sea, the general feeling was that Russia and the former soviet states were still in a transition towards democracy after seven decades of communism. There is much antagonism within the former Soviet Union and yet the paradox between socialism and ultra liberalism continues to this day. The new generation carefully blacks out their memory of the former Soviet Republic while the oldest generation still clings to the ideas of security brought to them through communism.