Tweaking Ankara’s Approach to Transcaucasia

14.12.2018 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

AB453222

Once European authorities turned their back on pursuing any sort of integration with Turkey, Ankara has noticeably stepped up its foreign policy efforts in the eastern direction, that has long been the focus of Turkish policies anyway. We’re speaking about Syria, Iraq and Transcaucasia.

However, Ankara is presented with a task of establishing a line that will not just go in tune with its own interests in Transcaucasia, but those of the West. This approach will become particularly evident, if we take a look at the sixth meeting of defense ministers of defense that occurred in the Turkish province of Giresun last March. This event featured heads of defence ministries of Turkey, that was followed by Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavuşoglu hosting discussions with his Azerbaijani and Georgian counterparts Elmar Mammadyarov and David Zalkalian respectively in late October in Istanbul. At the joint press conference after the meeting, Cavusoglu stressed that Ankara would continue supporting unconditionally the territorial integrity of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Turkey has been maintaining strong influence in Azerbaijan for a long while now, as Baku and Ankara maintain ties on a number of different levels, including economic, political, cultural and ethnic. Azerbaijan is, without a doubt, an important partner for Turkey in the South Caucasus, especially in the context of Ankara’s neo-Ottoman aspiration and the ongoing expansion of Turkish influence in the world. In this context, the Republic of Turkey would carry on defending its “younger brother” in any situation, as it has repeatedly sided with Azerbaijan in those situations that were critical for this country’s survival. Turkey would proactively support Baku during the shooting phase of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and was bold enough to join the consequent economic blockade of Armenia. It’s also noteworthy that in the course of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Iran over the Alov oil field in 2001, Turkey was the only state that backed Baku with both diplomatic and military support.

Those facts would largely explain the mantra that would often be repeated by Azerbaijani pseudo-patriots: “One nation – two states”, which would often be tirelessly repeated in a attempt to demonstrate Baku’s unconditional loyalty to Ankara.

As for Turkey’s influence in Georgia, it remains largely economic and expands without any formal opposition from Tbilisi. Ever since the 90s Georgia has been a major trading partner of Azerbaijan and Ankara. The countries are connected by several strategic infrastructure projects – the Baku-Supsa, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipelines and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline, envisioned and sponsored by the United States – a principal ally of the three above mentioned countries. In addition, Baku, Tbilisi and Ankara have been hard at work constructing the promising Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic gas pipelines, which should become one of the alternative channels for the supply of gas to the EU, thus fulfilling the European policy aimed at a wider diversification of energy suppliers.

Additionally, Turkey has a loud say in Georgian affairs due to the fact that unemployed Georgians would often go to Turkey in search of employment, while Ankara carries on importing cheap goods in Georgia tax-free. Turks would also take advantage of the careless nature of Georgian elected representatives, buying off Georgian lands and real estate dirt cheap.

At the same time, in their approach towards spreading its influence across Transcaucasia, in recent years Turkey has started approaching Abkhazia.

As a rule, Ankara would move in the wake of Washington’s policies and try to avoid spoiling its relations with Tbilisi through all possible means. That’s why Turkey hasn’t officially recognize the legitimacy of Sukhum authorities, in spite of the fact that Turkey serves home to more than half a million people strong Abkhaz diaspora. In fact, Turkey’s Abkhaz diaspora is among the oldest ethnic minority groups in the world, with more Abkhazians dwelling in Turkey that in Abkhazia itself.

The lack of official regulations in the dynamically developing Turkish-Abkhaz bilateral trade resulted in crime syndicates taking over control over the entire trade turnover between states and the better part of border crossings between the two.

There are two groups of threats arising from the fact that Turkish criminal elements have successfully infiltrated Abkhazia. The first group of threats hinders any socio-economic and political development of the Republic of Abkhazia itself, while second is detrimental to the security of the Russian Federation.

A considerable part of the Abkhaz-Turkish bilateral trade comes in the form of building materials, textiles, food, agricultural products, and timber. All of these spheres remain dominated by criminals, which means that the funds received from the criminal economic activity are used to create new legal and semi-legal enterprises in Abkhazia and to effectively corrupt the local government and law enforcement agencies of the young republic. What’s worse is that the budget receives no taxes from the better part of transactions, which results in the already tense and unstable socio-political situation in Abkhazia getting even more volatile.

The “entrepreneurial activity” of Turkish organized crime groups contributes to the increase of the number of both economic crimes and ordinary ones. Law enforcement agencies of Abkhazia are unable to provide an adequate answer to the organized crime, as law enforcement agents would often themselves often get hired by criminals to defend them. This results in the local people rapidly losing trust in the capacity of the government to address the most pressing issues. Over the last 4 years, President Raul Khajimba replaced four ministers of internal affairs, however, this strategy failed to produce any visible improvement in the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies.

The rise of crime in Abkhazia represents a major threat to Russia, as the border area of Turkey and then Abkhazia have become a part of the massive heroin smuggling corridor that stretches from Afghanistan to the EU. According to international experts, Turkish criminal groups have managed to establish unhindered passage of drug caravans through Abkhazia, which serves as an indicator of high corruption levels among local law enforcement agencies. And, as you some of you may know, the most “faithful companion” of illegal drug trade is weapons smuggling. The ineffectiveness of Abkhazian border patrols makes Moscow concerned about the threat of a possible terrorist infiltration of Russian territories through Abkhazia.

In recent years, Turkey has maintained close cooperation with Russia. A sincere, transparent dialogue based on mutual trust, nurtured by the presidents of the two countries, enabling a historical opportunity of development a strategic cooperation between Ankara and Moscow in both economic, political and cultural spheres. What’s even more telling, Turkey and Russia have managed to respect the interests of each other in Syria.

Moreover, Russia is cooperating with Turkey in its fight against the Gülen movement, a terrorist organization led by former Imam Fethullah Gulen that managed to escape prosecution by fleeing to the US. He is the one responsible for the assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov that occurred back in 2016. At the same time, Moscow seeks to coordinate its efforts with Turkey against the PKK, which receives weapons and ammunition from the United States.

Moving forward, Ankara and Moscow have repeatedly expressed in their statements that they hope to explore new horizons of their cooperation. However, the development and deepening of this cooperation will largely depend on the willingness of each of the parties to carefully listen to the demands and aspirations of the other side, including coordination of actions in the region of mutual interest between Turkey and Russia – that is Transcaucasia. And Ankara should be mindful of this fact.

Vladimir Odintsov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’.