President Eduard Shevardnadze’s January 29-30 visit to Turkey highlighted that country’s role as a buttress to Georgian independence and anchor to the West. The visit laid to rest for good any questions regarding the continuity of Turkish policy in the South Caucasus in the wake of the seven-year presidency of Suleyman Demirel. Under the new president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Ankara is demonstrating its resolve to continue an active and constructive policy in the region politically, economically and to some extent militarily.
In his meeting with Shevardnadze, Turkey’s Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit termed the bilateral relationship “special and strategic” and added, alluding to Russian pressures: “Georgia’s problems are also our problems, and Georgia’s security is also our security.” Shevardnadze and the Turkish leadership reviewed and made decisions on the full spectrum of regional issues, affecting not only Georgia and Turkey but also Azerbaijan, an ally in all but name.
–Regional and Bilateral Security. The Georgian-Turkish communique reactivated the proposal for a Caucasus Stability Pact, which Demirel and Shevardnadze had initiated in parallel in 1999, Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev had supported, but Russia and Iran had rejected. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is now promoting a counterproposal to establish a “Caucasus Four” system, which would exclude Turkey and the West, isolate Georgia and Azerbaijan, increase Armenia’s dependence on Russia, and enable the latter to dominate the three small countries in the group of four. The communique just issued in Ankara signals that Georgia and Turkey stand firm in supporting the Caucasus Stability Pact, which would cement their strategic relationship, as opposed to the strategic decoupling that the “Caucasus Four” would produce.
Tbilisi and Ankara reviewed their bilateral cooperation in the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and peacekeeping operations, the Georgian highlight of which is the participation of a rotating Georgian platoon alongside Turkish troops in the Kosovo operation under NATO command. Turkey is primarily responsible for the Georgian unit’s training and maintenance–an arrangement similar to one between Turkey and an Azerbaijani platoon.
Just days before Shevardnadze’s visit, the Turkish military completed, at its own expense, the first phase of reconstruction of the Marneuli military airport, situated some 40 kilometers from Tbilisi, in an Azeri-populated district of Georgia. Turkey’s defense minister, General Sabahattin Cakmakoglu, and Air Force commander, General Ergin Celasin, joined Georgia’s Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania and other Tbilisi leaders for the inaugural ceremony on January 28 at Marneuli. It took Turkish engineering troops three months to modernize the control tower and hangars and upgrade the runways, each 2,500 meters long, which can now receive 200-ton capacity transport airplanes in daytime. A follow-up reconstruction phase will make nighttime and all-weather operations at Marneuli possible. This airport will serve Georgia and her NATO partners as a substitute for the Vaziani airport, where Russia retains usage rights–albeit under Georgian sovereignty–pending the final closure of Russian military bases in Georgia.
Georgia’s defense minister, Lieutenant Davit Tevzadze, signed with his counterpart in Ankara an agreement on the removal of antipersonnel mines from border areas and on the non-use of such mines in the future. By liquidating this Soviet-era legacy, Turkey and Georgia seek to promote cross-border trade and the opening of access roads. Shevardnadze’s visit also yielded signature on an agreement on Turkish assistance to Georgia in the military industrial sector and technical training in that sector.
–Ethnic Issues. For the first time in their ten-year relationship, the sides agreed on some coordinated steps to promote a settlement in Abkhazia and encourage stability in Ajaria. Turkey is home to a politically active Abkhaz diaspora which supports Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia and has for years conducted–along with profit-seeking Turks–unlawful trade with Abkhazia via the Black Sea. That trade has in some ways provided a lifeline to Abkhazia during these years. On his visit to Ankara, Shevardnadze met with representatives of the Abkhaz diaspora through the good offices of the Turkish government. The three sides decided to explore mutually acceptable ways toward a settlement of that conflict. Shevardnadze tasked his top negotiator on Abkhazia, Malkhaz Kakabadze, to maintain regular contact with the Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey and inform its leaders about proposals developed by Tbilisi and the Friends of Georgia group of Western countries.
Ajaria’s chairman of the council of ministers, Giorgi Tsintskiladze, accompanied Shevardnadze to Ankara. The Ajar leader Aslan Abashidze, while often recalcitrant toward Tbilisi, maintains close relations with Turkey. Ajaria–and, apparently, her leaders–gain substantially from the vibrant, mostly unregistered and unofficially taxed cross-border trade with Turkey. The latter exercises a stabilizing influence on the mercurial Ajar leadership. The informal Turkish role helps offset the Ajar leaders’ inclination to make their own deals with Russia at the expense of Tbilisi.
On another issue fraught with destabilizing potential, the Turkish side showed responsibility and refrained from pressing Tbilisi to repatriate the Meskhetian Turks who had been deported by Stalin from Georgia’s Javakheti province. Feelings of Turkic solidarity notwithstanding, Ankara realizes, as does Tbilisi, that such repatriation could trigger an explosion from Armenians in Javakheti. Some of the Armenians there were settled by the Soviet authorities in place of the Meskhetian Turks.
–Transport Projects. Georgia and Turkey currently share an optimistic assessment of the prospects of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil export pipeline. The formation of the international Sponsor Group, its expected enlargement, and the recent start of engineering work should bring closer the start of the construction work on the pipeline. Shevardnadze and the Turkish leaders expressed confidence that Kazakhstan would join the project as an oil exporter country from Aktau. At the moment, Kazakhstan is being publicly asked by Moscow to withhold Kazakh oil from the Baku-Ceyhan project in order to reduce its commercial attractiveness and investor appeal. On a related issue, Ankara and Tbilisi jointly called for the reactivation of the trans-Caspian export pipeline for Turkmen gas via Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey. The Turkmen President, Saparmurat Niazov, has recently signaled that he considers lifting the logjam on that project. Anatolia agency, The Turkish Daily News, Kavkasia Press, Prime-News, Georgian Television, January 26-31; see the Monitor, January 3, 11, 16, 23-24; Fortnight in Review, January 5).
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