Dancing the fast Caucasian dance

Cihan Çelik, ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News

Turkey's policy toward Georgia, seen by Turkey as key to becoming an energy corridor to Caucasian and Central Asian energy resources, is fundamentally flawed because it is based on NATO and US policies and contradicts its own regional strategy, experts say. 

Burgeoning trade relations and joint energy projects undertaken with Georgia has not taken Turkey, which usually prefers to follow NATO's and United States lead in dealing with its northeastern neighbor, toward an independent foreign policy.

Despite the fact that Georgia once again re-elected pro-Western Mikhail Saakashvili as its president in elections last week, the ex-soviet country is far from stability, with the opposition contesting the results and tensions with the two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, threatening to engulf the whole region.

The tensions with Russia over Abkhazia reached a new crescendo before the elections, with Saakashvili who came to power after the so-called "Rose Revolution" in 2004, utilizing it to his own benefit and bringing the two countries close to war.

Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia in 1994, but Tbilisi continues to regard it as a breakaway region, as the international community does.

Georgia is crucial in Turkey's efforts to channel Azerbaijani and Central Asian energy resources to the rest of the world. The tension in Georgia, however, does not bid well for the plans. Despite the country's key problems, Turkey does not follow an independent policy toward Georgia and seeks to counterbalance Russian influence through proxies like the United States and NATO.

Turkey has three priorities for the Caucasus: To improve independence of South Caucasian republics, to defend their territorial integrity and to play an active role in the transfer of Caspian Sea energy resources, Hasan Kanbolat, Caucus expert of Center for Eurasia Studies, or ASAM, said.

Kanbolat told the Turkish Daily News that Turkey's relation with Georgia has "both pluses and minuses." From a trade point of view, he said, "Turkey's foreign trade capacity has grown in five years from $240 million to $800 million. And also, the two countries have signed a Free Trade Agreement and are cooperating militarily. Turkey supports Georgia with military equipment and some Georgian military personnel are educated in Turkey."

"Turkey, which advocates territorial integrity for all South Caucasus, puts special emphasis on the integrity of Georgia."

A Central Asia expert at the Ankara-based think tank Global Strategy, Aslan Yavuzşir agreed and added, "We know that Turkey's peace and stability mission in the Caucasus is supported by the Western nations."

Still, Yavuzşir said the policy was flawed because the policy ignored the sentiments of its own Caucasian citizens. He asked, "Is this pro-Western strategy consistent with Turkey's own interests?"

Policy based on Turks:

Sezai Babakuş, a predominant figure in the Abkhazian community in Turkey and the founder of the Celebrity Speakers Association, or CSA, told the Turkish Daily News that Turkey's foreign policy toward Georgia was neither rational nor comprehensive.

"Turkey's foreign policy toward the Caucasus is influenced by nationalism and Turkic groups there, same as it is in northern Iraq," he said.

In Iraq, Turkey is following the United States' lead and bases its stance on the fate of the Turkmen minority in northern Iraq, Babakuş argued. "In Iraq, Turkey ignores the Kurds to the detriment of its own Kurds. In the Caucasus, its policy is based on Azeris, Meskets, Karapapaks, Balkar and Karachai minorities while it ignores the Circassians. Consequently it hurts its citizens of Circassian extraction," he added.

Babakuş, who also worked for Abkhazia's separatist government between 1990-1996, said, "In fact, this is a reflection of an internal policy fundamentally based on Turkishness."

Global Strategy's Yavuzşir agreed, noting, "Turkey, in some instances, took decisions that could hamper its relations with its own Caucasus-rooted citizens. But it should handle the Caucasus in a bilateral way and develop pro-active policies. In brief Turkey has no long-term policies for the Caucasus."

Relations with Abkhazia:

Babakuş claimed that Turkey was militarily supporting Georgia against Abkhazia. "In 1992, Georgia attacked Abkhazia with political support from Turkey. Today that support is growing with military means. Georgia is bolstering its forces near the Abkhazian border. Thus, Turkey may be indirectly responsible for a potential war between Georgia and Abkhazia."

"Turkey's support to Georgia angers its own Abkhazian community. The country closed direct travel to Abkhazia, and the Trabzon-Sukhumi sea route was also closed in 1995," Babakuş said. "From 1992 to date, governments tried to bar our support to Abkhazia and as a result, they have lost the confidence of the Abkhazian community."

"For Abkhazians, there is only one way: To defend the motherland against aggressors," Babakuş said.

Yavuzşir said there was a humanitarian tragedy in Abkazia, "The region is isolated from the world and Turkey is impassive to this fact."

Kanbolat said, "Turkey has the opportunity to develop relations with breakaway Abkhazia, which is isolated from the international community. At least it can develop a minimum relation with this region, as Georgia did. Georgia has had economic, commercial and cultural relations with Abkhazia. If Turkey's relation with Abkhazia improved, Russia would not be the only outside access for Abkhazia anymore."

Current tension:

Just like Ukraine, Georgia is seen as a conflict zone between the West and Russia, Yauzşir believes. "Georgia may prefer to improve relations with Russia. But in that case, negotiation with Russia would damage his credibility back in Tbilisi. As a matter of fact, the Saakashvili government does not have the capacity for such a negotiation. A new government is needed," he said.

On Abkhazia, there are two extreme scenarios, Kanbolat said. "Georgia could recognize the independence of breakaway regions, or declare war. Saakashvili should decide what to do. Tbilisi may reach an agreement or attack both Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he said.

According to Kanbolat, in the light of recent developments, a conflict is more likely. "In Georgia people believe that "Russia is pushing Georgia into a war, because Moscow predicts defeat for Georgia and after that it'll create a new 'Russian style' administration in Georgia," he said.

"A possible conflict would affect Turkey directly, as we witnessed during the 1992 Abkhazia War. But in a new intervention, the impact on Turkey would be much worse, due to the Abkhazian diaspora in Turkey," Kanbolat added.

Professor Özkan Açıkgöz from the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies, or TASAM, said after Kosovo's declaration of independence, "Russia gambled with the destiny of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and sent a message to the world that the same may happen in Georgia."

"But Russia understands that it's in a wrong path, and Moscow gave up its insistence on the independence of Abkhazia and S. Ossetia," he claimed.

"Possible military unrest in the region would negatively affect Turkey's regional trade, it would irk Turkish Abkhazians and more importantly, would result in a new wave of migration to Turkey," Açıkgöz said.



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