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 Shamba.
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 Sukhumi.
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 common."
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 thereafter.
Whatever Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions in Abkhazia, it will have to contend with Russia’s resurgence in the South Caucasus.
Editor's Note: Igor Torbakov is a Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki specializing in Russian and Eurasian history and politics.