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Caucasus: Analysis From Washington--Hands Across The Sea

Washington, 19 September 1997(RFE/RL) - A conference bringing together representatives of the six Black Sea coast states provides another indication of the way in which bodies of water may now unite rather than divide countries along their shores.

Scholars, environmental activists and scientists from Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria will discuss the fate of the Black Sea as they undertake an eight-day cruise, starting tomorrow, along the coastline all of them share.

They are coming together now under the auspices of the Istanbul-based Orthodox Patriarchate out of a common conviction that the fate of their countries depends on the fate of the Black Sea, a body of water now considered virtually dead as a result of pollution.

According to one of the organizers, Laurence Mee, the head of the Black Sea Environmental Program, that body of water "has reached the limit of its capacity to absorb the impact of human activity."

And as such, its fate, Mee concludes "is the first warning of what is going on in other places in the world."

Clearly, at least some people in the six coastal states now share that conviction, despite the fact that they have often been at odds politically and economically in the past. That does not mean that their governments will be able to work together anytime soon, but this shared view may point in that direction over time.

But what is most striking about this meeting is that it represents the appearance of a political phenomenon already much in evidence around three other bodies of water in Eurasia.

Perhaps the most striking of these coastal organizations consists of the states along the Baltic Sea coast. That grouping, which includes many traditional antagonists, has advanced from discussing environmental issues to a variety of broader concerns.

A second grouping with enormous economic and political implications includes the countries around the Caspian Sea.

To date, that group of countries has been unable to agree on the fundamental issue of how to divide access to the enormous petroleum resources beneath the surface of the Caspian.

But the emergence of this group of states, and even more the continuing discussions among its members have allowed these countries to find points of agreement they might not otherwise have explored and thus helped to build confidence despite continuing discord.

And yet a third group of such countries, the states either bordering on or directly affected by the tragedy of the drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, also underscores the ways in which an ecological tragedy can draw states together on broader issues.

Instead of competing among themselves over what to do about the Aral Sea, the states of the Central Asian region have focused on ways in which they can cooperate.

None of these coastal institutions necessarily will overcome the suspicions and competitions of the past, nor will environmental concerns necessarily lead to political agreements.

But the fact that at least some officials and activists in all these countries are coming together to talk about what they now define as a common problem is a first step in both directions.

Moreover, precisely as a confidence building measure, any agreement on environmental concerns will make it easier for countries to agree on broader issues if only by encouraging the parties involved to imagine that agreement is possible.

And finally, the emergence of these three seas as unifying forces among long-divided countries and peoples suggests that other bodies of water around the world -- including rivers as well as oceans -- may become a basic organizing principle of the post-Cold War world.

To the extent that happens, the conference next week may come to be seen as a major turning point not only for the fate of the Black Sea but for that of the world as a whole.