Turkey Considers the Status of Abkhazia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 182

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

In response to a question as to whether Ankara and Moscow have reached a deal to recognize Abkhazia and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated: “Russia will not enter a deal implying the recognition of Northern Cyprus in exchange for Turkish recognition of Abkhazia” (Zaman, October 4).

The debate was originally triggered by an article written by Paul Goble in the Moscow Times on September 16. Goble argued that: “There appears to be a chance that Turkey, despite denials by its officials, might break the embargo against recognition because of Ankara’s desire to play a greater role in the South Caucasus region, its own long-standing experience as the only country to recognize the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, and the influence of its own Abkhaz and Circassian communities.” He based his argument on the intention of the Turkish Foreign Minister Akhmet Davutoglu to visit Abkhazia in order to “get acquainted with [that republic] and attempt to regulate its relations with Georgia,” while he continued, “thus potentially positioning Turkey to play a role paralleling the one it has offered to play between Azerbaijan and Armenia.” Two days later, Unal Cevikoz, the Deputy Under Secretary for Political Affairs in the Turkish Foreign Ministry, who is of Circassian descent, visited Sukhumi and met with the Abkhazian Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba. While Turkish officials said that Ankara had informed Tbilisi about the visit and had not changed its policy of supporting the territorial integrity of Georgia, Cevikoz’s visit raised hopes in Sukhumi (The Moscow Times, September 16).

Regarding Cevikoz’s visit to the region, Davutoglu said that the existence of the Abkhaz community in Turkey compels Ankara to consider how to resolve this problem. “We know very well that having peace and stability in the South Caucasus region without achieving this in Georgia is very difficult. With these thoughts and perspectives, Turkey will continue making efforts toward the resolution of the Abkhazian conflict, as it has done in previous years” Davutoglu explained (Today’s Zaman, September 8).

Goble’s analysis also triggered a new debate within Turkey. The Turkish media ran optimistic stories about the possibility of such mutually beneficial recognition policies (Vatan, September 21). However, Turkish analysts are skeptical that Turkey would want to recognize Abkhazia or that Russia would choose to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (www.turksam.org, September 27).

Recently, Lavrov joined the debate and revealed Moscow’s position: Russia will not enter any deal implying the recognition of Northern Cyprus in exchange for the Turkish recognition of Abkhazia. “We are not inclined to enter any deals following ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ logic. These are two absolutely different stories. These are different situations from the historical, moral and humanitarian points of view. Any bargaining is out of the question. Each situation should be considered in its historical context,” Lavrov added (www.russiatoday.ru, October 3).

It seems that Lavrov’s emphasis on history may indicate that Ankara could be interested in establishing some form of relations with Abkhazia. Historically tens of thousands of Muslim Abkhazians moved to the Ottoman empire, as part of a larger Muslim migration process from the Caucasus in the nineteenth century. Approximately 500,000 Abkhazian descendents now live in Turkey. In addition, other Caucasus communities in Turkey have close relations with Abkhazians. The only exception is the Georgian descended Muslim communities in Turkey. Due to their over representation in critical government institutions, such as the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), the Turkish armed forces, and their nationalist outlook, Abkhazians retain significant lobbying power in Ankara.

By emphasizing the historical perspective, Moscow might expect help from these communities in order to generate pressure on the Turkish government to establish some form of relationship with Abkhazia. Cevikoz’s visit to Sukhumi may indicate a policy shift in Ankara. In 2007, when the Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh wanted to visit Turkey to meet with the Abkhaz diaspora, the Turkish government refused to issue a visa and President Abdullah Gul at the time stated that “I can only reiterate in this regard that Turkey supports Georgia’s territorial integrity” (www.civil.ge, November 21, 2007).

The crucial question remains: since 2007, what has changed that has required Turkish diplomats to visit the region? Hasan Kanpolat, a Turkish analyst who has close relations with the Turkish foreign minister, pointed out what had led the government to revise its outlook toward Abkhazia:

“During a period in which Abkhazia’s independence process has begun to gain momentum, Cevikoz could not have gone to Sukhumi to engage in efforts to restart a peace process between Abkhazia and Georgia. Therefore, we can presume that, to prevent Abkhazia from unifying any further with the Russian Federation, Ankara may have asked Tbilisi to allow a controlled relationship with Abkhazia. To be more explicit, the door may be opened to preventing Georgia from intercepting ships on humanitarian missions or those involved in trade traveling between Turkey and Abkhazia using the Black Sea” (Today’s Zaman, September 17).

Kanpolat further argues that Ankara sees that a close relationship with Abkhazia would eventually produce a similar multi-dimensional relationship with Cypriot Turks in the eastern Mediterranean. Abkhazia in this case would become an accessible Black Sea coastline for Turkey.