Ankara probing for stronger ties to renegade Georgian region of Abkhazia

Turkey’s efforts to reconcile with Armenia have attracted plenty of
attention over the past six weeks. It’s less widely known that Ankara
is simultaneously engaged in a delicate diplomatic move to forge closer
ties with Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s renegade territories.

On the surface, Turkey continues to endorse the concept of Georgia’s
territorial integrity, and senior Turkish diplomats emphasize that
“there is no policy change in the Caucasus.” But there have been subtle
signs of late that Ankara’s diplomacy is taking new realities into
account. Specifically, in the aftermath of the 2008 Georgian-Russian
war, the chances that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will someday
reintegrate with Georgia seem completely dashed.

Highlighting the new thinking that seems to be taking hold in Ankara,
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, while on the official
visit to Tbilisi in early September, that he intended to visit Abkhazia
in order to “get acquainted with [that republic], and attempt to
regulate its relations with Georgia.” Shortly thereafter, Unal Cevikoz,
deputy undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry — and a former
ambassador in Azerbaijan — paid a visit to Sukhumi, Abkhazia’s
capital, and met with de facto Abkhazian foreign minister Sergey

This visit, a number of Turkish analysts say, had little to do with
Ankara’s professed desire to kick-start a new peace initiative between
Sukhumi and Tbilisi. Rather, Turkey’s Abkhaz gambit offered evidence
that a totally new diplomatic round of maneuvering is getting underway,
involving Turkey, Georgia, Abkhazia, and Russia.

According to one commentary, Ankara “has entered into an unstoppable
multi-dimensional integration process with Abkhazia.” Other voices
within the Turkish analytical community suggest that Ankara wishes to
persuade Tbilisi to let it develop a “controlled relationship” with

In a commentary published in the Today’s Zaman newspaper, a prominent
Turkish expert on Caucasus affairs, Hasan Kanbolat, wrote that Ankara
eventually wants ties with Abkhazia that are “similar to the
multidimensional relationship established with Cypriot Turks in the
east Mediterranean region.”

The parallels with the Cyprus situation appear to be quite obvious.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and Moscow’s subsequent recognition of
the two separatist enclaves’ independence, in a way repeat the story of
Northern Cyprus. This Turkish Cypriot statelet, recognized only by
Ankara, declared its independence in 1983, 10 years after Turkey
invaded the island claiming the need to protect the ethnic Turkish
population there against assault by Greeks. Speaking with Russia’s
Kommersant newspaper immediately after the Georgia war, the Turkish
Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, while stressing that every country is
“unique,” noted that the Georgian and Cyprus cases “have a lot in

Turkey’s Ottoman legacy is perhaps another factor in Ankara’s
decision-making calculus. The imperial legacy is reflected by the fact
that around 500,000 Turkish citizens consider themselves to be of
Abkhaz origin. The Ottoman past also underlies Ankara’s popular foreign
policy concept of “strategic depth,” with its historical and
geographical dimensions. This concept is helping Turkey’s leadership
justify their ambition to become a regional geopolitical power.

Contemporary factors also seem to be at work in shaping Ankara’s
position in the southwestern Caucasus. First, after Abkhazia’s
independence was recognized by Venezuela, some Turkish analysts began
to lose all hope for the Georgian reintegration option. Ankara is
additionally interested in seeing Abkhazia wean itself from its
dependency on Russia. The greatest fear is that Abkhazia might
eventually be annexed by Russia.

While some Russian experts appear to buy into the Northern Cyprus
analogy for Abkhazia, they are quick to point out that it will be
Moscow, not Ankara, that serves as Sukhumi’s protector. Underscoring
the seriousness of the Kremlin’s intentions, Russia in mid-September
signed defense pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The agreements
will allow Russia to station 1,700 troops in each region for the next
49 years, with the option of continuing five-year extensions

Whatever Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions in Abkhazia, it will have to contend with Russia’s resurgence in the South Caucasus.