Legend has it that Achilles was buried alongside his lover, Patroclus, on Snake Island, which resembles more of a rock protruding from the Black Sea, just some 35 kilometers off the coast of Ukraine and Romania. No trace of Achilles has yet been found on the island, but companies in both countries are eyeing vast quantities of untapped oil and natural gas in the vicinity.
A ruling in the complicated case, heard by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, is not expected until next year. But if Romania, which filed an appeal in 2004, gets its way, the judges will recognize the tiny landmass off Ukraine’s coast of the Black Sea as no more than a rock. Such a ruling would put much of the energy reserves near the island into Romanian hands.
Ukraine has in recent years worked hard to develop what it views as an island, stretching 662 meters by 440 meters. Ukraine has tried to prove it can be farmed and sustain life. If the judges buy the argument, then Ukraine’s Black Sea borders would stretch further from this island, encompassing Black Sea territory where sizable oil and gas reserves may lie.
Romania took the dispute to the International Court of Justice, commonly called the “World Court,” after years of negotiations failed to draw a line acceptable to both Bucharest and Kyiv.
The 15-judge tribunal is the United Nation’s judicial arm dealing with disputes between member states. Its findings are binding, although it has no power of enforcement. Both sides presented their case last month, but a decision is not expected until late this year, or early next year.
Romania filed the case against Ukraine, challenging Kyiv’s view of the landmass as an island, in 2004. Speaking at the start of hearings last month, Romania’s representative accused Ukraine of unfairly distorting maritime border rules.
Bogdan Aurescu, director general of Romania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accused Ukraine of exploiting its ownership of Serpents Island, also known as Snake Island, to propose a more southerly line in its favor. Aurescu said the island was illegally annexed by the Soviet Union and handed to Ukraine at its independence.
Volodymyr Vasylenko, the Ukrainian representative to the court, has said his country holds a strong chance of winning the case, but warned that a final ruling may not come until the first half of 2009. Ukraine’s authorities have gone through vast lengths to demonstrate the self-sustainability of life on the island, a key point needed to win the case.
They have installed a bank machine, mobile telephone service and tried to cultivate farming, among other things. Ukraine has also set up a border checkpoint, a post office, a medical center and a museum on the island. Some 90 people live on the island; supplies are flown in by helicopter.
The discovery of major oil and gas deposits in the mid-1990s prompted arguments over access to areas in the Black Sea. Romania and Ukraine signed a treaty in 1997 agreeing to negotiate a border settlement, and not to exploit the oil in the disputed area in the meantime.
Aurescu told the court his country’s counterproposal is drawn up based on accepted principles for setting maritime boundaries. Romania, though, does not aim to raise territorial claims and had recognized this piece of land in the Black Sea to be Ukrainian territory in the basic political treaty in 1997 reaffirming it in a border agreement between the two countries in 2003.
Vasylenko said “The Hague Court has a reputation of never fully satisfying the aspirations of any of the sides, often times offering a compromise decision.”
“So we do not expect the judges to satisfy 100 percent of the claims of either of the parties.” But ultimately, any decision, be it in Kyiv’s favor or not, would be good for both sides. Apart from dividing up what could be vast hydrocarbon finds, it will remove a painful and long-lasting conflict from the bilateral relations of two neighbors that are rare pro-western allies in the region, Vasylenko added.