The following article is based on research conducted under the State Department’s Title VIII Fellowship, for the Frontier Europe Initiative at MEI.

Georgia’s major seaports form a vital link in the transit of commerce via the Black Sea. The role of seaports as critical nodes, however, has also drawn the attention of malign state and non-state actors looking to further their own agendas. Georgia’s two major seaports, Poti and Batumi, provide crucial contributions to the country’s economy and maritime security. Georgian authorities can improve the safety of these seaports by considering the underlying motivators, known as threat factors, that drive local and transnational involvement in illicit seaborne trade, including high income inequality, poverty, and population displacement. Complementing existing initiatives that address deficiencies in the technical aspects of seaport security with threat factors analysis creates a more holistic approach to maritime security. This combined approach would allow Georgian authorities to generate long-term solutions to broader maritime security challenges. From an international perspective, enhancing maritime security in Georgia aligns with the strategic interests of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as this South Caucasus state forms an important transit corridor for commerce destined for Western markets.

Strategic relevance for the United States 

Georgia and its seaports hold significant geostrategic importance to the U.S. and its European allies. Georgia’s position on the eastern Black Sea coastline means a significant proportion of trade from the Middle East and Asia, including hydrocarbons, destined for European markets pass through its harbors. According to an interview with a representative of the Maritime Transport Agency of Georgia, the country’s seaports can handle almost 30 million tons of hydrocarbons annually. Plans to expand Georgia’s seaport handling capacity, including by reinvesting in the long-delayed and repeatedly scuppered Anaklia deep sea port project, will only increase the country’s geostrategic significance moving forward. In turn, threats to Georgian seaports, whether military, terrorist, economic, or criminal in nature, not only impact trade routes in the Black Sea region but jeopardize the economic security of destination countries in Europe, including fellow NATO member states.

In recognition of the country’s critical contribution to the Black Sea security architecture, the U.S. has collaborated with Georgia on several initiatives in the region. Within the framework of NATO, for instance, the U.S. has participated in the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP) introduced in 2014. Washington also contributes to Georgia’s security development on a bilateral basis. In 2022, the U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. Naval Information Warfare Center-Pacific worked with local stakeholders to find ways to improve search and rescue, maritime law enforcement, and port security in Georgia. By working with local stakeholders like Georgia to address both tangible security threats and their underlying socio-economic drivers, the United States can cost-effectively improve regional security.

Licit and illicit trade in Georgia

Georgia’s seaports handle significant volumes of traffic annually. Several major transport routes connecting the Middle East and Asia to Europe transit through Georgia, including the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) corridor, Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), Lapis Lazuli Route, Persian Gulf-Black Sea corridor, and South-West Route. Transit across the South Caucasus has only increased after Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine earlier this year forced stakeholders to divert cargo away from affected seaports. In the first six months of 2022, Georgia’s seaports processed 6.3 million tons of cargo, an 18.8% increase from the previous year. These high levels of marine traffic, however, have increased the vulnerability of Georgian seaports to security threats.

Non-state actors looking to conceal their illicit goods have long exploited the presence of well-used trade routes in Georgia. Authorities in Georgia recorded 3,020 cases of illicit drug sales, production, and border crossing attempts from 2015 to 2018. During the same period, officials intercepted around 80 cases of human trafficking. Since only 2% of maritime containers get inspected globally, concealing illicit goods within legal shipments offers smugglers a cost-effective way to transit cargo in bulk. Major seizures of illicit goods throughout the Black Sea region have been traced back to both Poti and Batumi. By looking at such threat factors, Georgian authorities can assess and address the underlying mechanisms that facilitate illicit maritime activity around seaports.

Seaport threat factors

Seaport threat factors in Georgia derive from inadequate coastal welfare. Surveys by the National Democratic Institute place economic challenges among Georgians’ top three national-level issues, including within coastline areas. In the coastal zones, environmental degradation due to pollution, floods, coastal erosion, and agricultural soil and forest destruction continues to reduce tourism potential, productivity, and commercial activity. Low levels of coastal welfare in the form of high income inequality, poverty, and population displacement can threaten seaport security by incentivizing participation in illicit maritime activities.

An important threat factor contributing to security challenges around seaports is income inequality, an attribute commonly measured by the Gini coefficient. A coefficient closer to zero indicates lower income disparities between the highest and lowest earning groups within society, while a coefficient closer to one points to more inequality. Of the emerging European and Eurasian countries, only Tajikistan and Turkey have higher Gini coefficients than Georgia, whose figure stands slightly above 0.4. Notably, the coastal Autonomous Republic of Adjara, where the seaport of Batumi is located, has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the country. The significant income discrepancy can create an environment more conducive to participation in illicit maritime activities.

Scholars have found that populations with higher income inequality levels are more likely to accept and engage in criminal activity. According to a Harvard study, in areas experiencing higher income disparity, the wealthy have more opportunities to engage in corruption, while the poor can more easily be extorted and are unable to deter the rich from participating in corrupt practices. In addition, inequality influences how people perceive social norms, which can create an environment that tolerates corruption. Assessing indicators of low coastal welfare in Georgia, like income inequality, can provide a deeper understanding of the economic pressures faced by the local population.

Another threat factor in Georgia is high poverty levels. Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Georgia has worked diligently to enhance its population’s overall standard of living. The poverty rate almost halved between 2007 and 2018, following reforms aimed at addressing unemployment and low wages, but the effectiveness of reforms have subsequently tapered off. Adjara again stands out, with available figures pointing to an upward trend in poverty levels. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the economic challenges faced by the region. By 2021, 20% of the population in Adjara required a government-provided subsistence allowance, marking a 59% increase from the year before the onset of the pandemic. High poverty levels create vulnerable coastal populations that can turn to black markets and illicit maritime activities to make ends meet. 

Population displacement also adversely impacts Georgia’s seaport security. The administrative region of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti, where the seaport of Poti is located, suffers significantly in this regard. Despite being the main destination, alongside Tbilisi, for internally displaced people fleeing the violence around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti’s depopulation rate has nonetheless reached 29%, the second highest in the country. Depopulation adversely impacts economic development in Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti by contributing to brain drain, aging demographics, environmental degradation, and decreases in property values. As a result, the lack of economic development could create local pressures to participate in illicit maritime activities in and around the Poti port.


High income inequality, poverty, and population displacement create threat factors that affect seaport security. In Georgia’s case, threat factors in the coastal provinces of Adjara and Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti impact the security of the critically important Batumi and Poti seaports, respectively. By identifying, analyzing, and addressing such threat factors in the two regions, Georgian authorities can complement existing initiatives directed at improving the more technical aspects of seaport security. This more holistic approach can provide sustainable solutions to maritime security challenges by addressing the underlying, systemic drivers for participation in illicit maritime activities around seaports. A more robust maritime security architecture will prove advantageous for both Georgia and the United States as they work to enhance security and prosperity in the Black Sea region.


Michael van Ginkel is currently conducting research on maritime security in Georgia as a Black Sea Fellow for the Middle East Institute.

Photo by Eddie Harrison/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

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