Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 153

The outbreak of fighting between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia has demonstrated the cost of Ankara’s often confused attempt at achieving a balance between becoming a regional player in the Caucasus and the need to maintain a working relationship with Moscow.

Many modern Turks trace their ethnic origins back to migrants who arrived in Anatolia from the Caucasus during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Since the collapse of communism, a sense of ethnic affiliation has been further fuelled by Turkey’s ambition to become a transit hub for the export of Caspian and Central Asian energy resources to Western markets. There has, however, often been a conflict between popular sympathy in Turkey for the separatist aspirations of the various ethnic minorities in the Caucasus, particularly if they are also Muslim, and the need for Ankara to establish strong ties with governments in the region, particularly in Azerbaijan and Georgia, in order to realize its ambition of becoming an energy hub. Perhaps most challengingly, Turkey has been attempting to become a rival to Russia as an energy conduit while increasing its dependence on Russia for its own energy supplies, particularly natural gas.

In 2007 Russia supplied Turkey with 23.1 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas, 63.5 percent of Turkey’s total imports of 36.5 bcm. During the first six months of 2008, supplies from Russia totaled 12.3 bcm, 62.1 percent of Turkey’s natural gas imports of 19.9 bcm (figures from the Turkish state-owned Petroleum Pipeline Company, www.botas.gov.tr).

Turkey’s poor relations with Armenia have meant that Ankara has sought to route the flow of oil and natural gas from Azerbaijan, through Georgia and into Anatolia. The result has been the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTV) oil pipeline, which runs from the Caspian to the eastern Mediterranean (see EDM, August 8) and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) natural gas pipeline, which runs parallel to BTC as far as eastern Anatolia. On July 24 the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey officially inaugurated the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, which will eventually provide the first rail link between the three countries (see EDM, July 25).

Cooperation in infrastructure has been underpinned by closer ties between Turkey and Georgia in other areas. Over the last five years, annual bilateral trade between the two countries has grown from $240 million to around $800 million (Turkish Daily News, August 11). Perhaps more significantly and much to Moscow’s annoyance, in 2006 Turkey pledged to provide Georgia with $1.8 million in military aid. As part of the agreement, Georgian officers also began traveling to Turkey to receive military training.

The outbreak of fighting on August 7 caught Turkey completely unprepared. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) initially antagonized Georgia by issuing a statement calling for an end to the fighting between “Georgians and South Ossetians” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Statement No. 141 of 8 August 2008, www.mfa.gov.tr). The Georgians were mollified, however, by another statement by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who accompanied a plea for an end to hostilities with a call for both sides to respect Georgia’s territorial integrity, an implicit gesture of support for Tbilisi (NTV, CNNTurk, August 9). The Turkish media also reported that Erdogan spoke with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Hurriyet, Radikal, August 10). However, he was less successful in his attempts to contact Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The Turkish media reported that on August 8 Erdogan had attempted to telephone Putin in Beijing where he was attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games but the requests from Turkish officials met with no response from their Russian counterparts. Erdogan tried again on August 9, when he heard that Putin had flown to North Ossetia, but again the request failed to elicit a reply (Radikal, Milliyet, Yeni Safak, Zaman, August 11).

It was not until August 10 that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov finally agreed to speak on the telephone with his Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan and then only to repeat Russia’s official position that it was engaged in an operation to counter Georgian aggression (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Statement No. 144 of 10 August 2008, www.mfa.gov.tr).

Turkish commentators have been unanimous in attributing Putin’s refusal to speak with Erdogan to Russian fury over Turkish military aid to Georgia, noting that Russia’s stranglehold over Turkey’s supplies of natural gas mean that it can afford simply to ignore any Turkish protests over Russian policy in the Caucasus (Hurriyet, Radikal, Yeni Safak, Zaman, August 11).

Turkey’s shared land border with Georgia meant that Turks were among the first foreign journalists to reach the area where the fighting has been taking place. Turkish media coverage has focused on the plight of civilians killed and wounded in Russian air strikes and artillery bombardments (NTV, CNNTurk, 7, August 9-11), but newspaper columnists have had no hesitation in holding Saakashvili ultimately to blame for the casualties. Even the Islamist media, which has little love for Russia because of its brutal suppression of the Muslim insurgency in Chechnya, has bluntly accused Saakashvili of engaging in military adventurism in order to try to prop up his domestic popularity.

Writing in the Islamist daily Yeni Safak, columnist Hasan Albayrak described the fighting as being the responsibility of the “fascist Saakashvili,” whom he bitterly criticized for his alleged intolerance of Muslims, and predicted that the decision to try to assert Georgian control over South Ossetia would herald the collapse of Saakashvili’s “chauvinist policies” (Yeni Safak, August 11).

“Saakashvili’s haste gave the Russian Federation the golden opportunity that it had been waiting for,” commented Hasan Kanbolat in the pro-Islamist daily Today’s Zaman. “This is the end of the road for Saakashvili, whose ambitions go well beyond his political and military capabilities” (Today’s Zaman, August 11).