By Giorgi Kvelashvili
Turkey has been Georgia’s number one trade partner ever since Moscow imposed harsh economic sanctions on Tbilisi some four years ago. To Russia’s great disappointment, the full-scale embargo has failed to compel Georgia to change its liberal domestic policy and pro-Western foreign orientation. What it produced instead was Georgia’s even more rigorous political and economic liberalization and faster reorientation of its markets to seek trade partners and investors in Europe, the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe.
Arguably, Turkey has been the biggest beneficiary since its businesses have rushed to fill the vacuum Russia left behind. And with that the already close political ties between the two Caucasus and Black Sea neighbors have turned into a strategic partnership. Tbilisi hopes that Ankara’s increased engagement in the region would be key to economic prosperity and political stability and would also dilute the negative role Moscow has traditionally played in the Caucasus.
Perhaps this thought was behind the sentiment Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili expressed on May 17 as he cordially greeted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Batumi, Georgia’s burgeoning Black Sea Riviera, during the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Sheraton Batumi Hotel, built on Turkish money. Welcoming Erdogan in his native Turkish, the Georgian president underscored the benefits the two countries have garnered by establishing a visa-free free trade relationship with one another. “The cooperation between Turkey and Georgia is an example for Europe and the whole region,” Saakashvili was quick to stress, and among the examples of rapidly developing economic partnerships he named the Batumi international airport – which has been under dual Georgian-Turkish authority; two million people crossing the Georgian-Turkish border annually who will soon require no international passports to enter each other’s territory; and the hundreds of millions of dollars that Turks invest into Georgia’s tourism and infrastructure in its Black Sea cities, Tbilisi and elsewhere around the country.
Georgians estimate that this year alone some two million foreign tourists will visit their country, with more than 800,000 in Achara, a southwestern Black Sea region in Georgia with Batumi as its central city. Turkish companies are interested in further developing Georgia’s capacities to transit more Azeri and Caspian oil and gas through its territory beyond the already operational Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines. In addition, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan are building a railroad segment to connect the three nations and Turkish firms are keen to invest into Georgia’s hydro power and tourism industries.
Before coming to Georgia, Prime Minister Erdogan had had important talks in Iran and Azerbaijan. In Tehran, Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva negotiated a deal with the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that could potentially help alleviate the international community’s fears over Iran’s nuclear program. In Baku, the Turkish leader discussed with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan a variety of issues ranging from strengthening bilateral economic and political ties to Nagorno-Karabakh to the Turkish-Armenian relationship.
The political part of President Saakashvili’s speech was no less impressive. Saakashvili called the West’s standoff with Iran the “life and death” issue for the “survival [of] small [third] countries” and praised Erdogan for trying to make “a diplomatic breakthrough” to defuse tensions. This would be a “diplomatic victory,” the Georgian leader underscored, “for Iran, Europe, America, Turkey and…for Georgia.”
Saakashvili apparently wants to make clear that there is a growing fear in Georgia that if Western capitals and Moscow negotiate a bargain in order to resolve the Iranian nuclear program issue, it increases the chance of Russia’s domination over Georgia and other post-Soviet nations. That the Kremlin would, as a bargaining chip, demand a sphere of influence at the expense of Georgia’s sovereignty and freedom of choice leaves almost no doubt in Tbilisi. Also, it is a widespread sentiment in Georgia that the United States and its European allies are not pressuring Russia enough to make it honor its international obligations and withdraw its troops from the occupied Georgian lands. When it comes to Georgia’s NATO membership, Georgian analysts believe, the West has not been persistent enough in keeping Russia out of its decision-making process and in setting clear goals and a due timetable for Georgia so that no doubts are left in the alliance’s commitment to the enlargement process and the moral principles.
Georgians already view the Obama administration’s “Russia first” policy with alarming concern and their fears only increased after the White House announced that “the war [Russia waged against Georgia in 2008] should no longer be an issue” when it resubmitted on May 11 the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement to Congress. Tbilisi’s desire to see the Iranian nuclear problem be solved without Russia being granted a free hand in Georgia is only natural and hence Saakashvili’ calling the Iran issue the matter of “life and death” for his small country. Turkey’s overall bigger regional role and more economic and political involvement in the Caucasus, in Tbilisi’s calculations, might positively influence the present and future developments in and around Georgia.