Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press
September 1, 2004

Tbilisi Poised for New Conflicts With Rebel Regions


Assistance That Ankara Is Giving to Abkhazia. By Oleg Kasimov. Noviye
Izvestia, Aug. 4, 2004, p. 4. Condensed text:

. . . A certain amount of tension arose last Saturday [July 31] in
relations between Georgia and Turkey. The reason was an incident in
the coastal waters of Abkhazia. A Georgian coast guard cutter fired
on a Turkish freighter that had crossed into Georgian territorial
waters and was headed for Sukhumi. The vessel was damaged, but the
Georgians did not succeed in detaining it. Abkhazia's minister of
security, Mikhail Tarba, declared yesterday that Abkhazia would
henceforth sink all Georgian ships entering the region's waters. The
minister said that, if necessary, aircraft would be used.

Somewhat earlier, the Abkhaz leadership also announced a halt to
the negotiating process with Tbilisi. The announcement was made the
day after the self-proclaimed republic's armed forces completed
training exercises that involved 15,000 people, including reservists.
The maneuvers were regarded in Tbilisi as preparations for a
large-scale war with Georgia. Under these circumstances, Turkey chose
to respond with silence to the incident involving its ship. There are
reasons for that: Turkey and Georgia, together with Azerbaijan,
currently form a politico-military axis that serves as a
counterbalance to another geopolitical structure in the region -- the
triangle formed by Russia, Armenia and Iran. With support from
Washington, Ankara is pushing for rapid completion of the
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which will carry Caspian oil to
world markets by way of Georgia and Turkey. In addition, Ankara is
helping Georgia to develop its military. It is no mere coincidence
that a platoon of Georgian peacekeepers has been serving in Kosovo
since 1999 as part of a Turkish battalion.

However, the unresolved Abkhaz problem is creating nervousness in
the two countries' relations. Turkey recognizes Georgia's territorial
integrity and rejects Sukhumi's attempts to secede from that
Transcaucasian republic. But at the same time, it closes its eyes to
the fact that its cargo ships regularly violate Georgia's maritime
border and deliver food and manufactured goods -- which the Georgians
regard as contraband -- to Abkhazia. Georgia's security services have
even given Ankara a list of Turkish vessels (19 altogether) that
regularly travel between Abkhazia and Turkey, but they have received
no response. Many experts are of the opinion that Ankara's stance on
the Abkhaz problem is heavily influenced by the Abkhaz community
living in Turkey. It consists of roughly 400,000 descendants of
muhajirs -- the name that was given in the Ottoman Empire to persons
of Abkhaz descent who fled to the empire during the Caucasus War in
the 19th century. Most of them adopted Islam in Turkey.

In the early 1990s, the Abkhaz authorities appealed to these people
to return to their historical homeland, promising them housing and
free education. At the same time, it was decided to build two
mosques, one in Sukhumi and the other in Gudauta. At first the
repatriation process progressed rapidly: Hundreds of muhajir families
returned to Abkhazia from Turkey. The number of citizens in the
autonomous republic who professed Islam rose sharply; according to
recent surveys, 49.3% of residents consider themselves Christians,
while 28.7% call themselves Muslims. Ankara is now closely following
the situation in Abkhazia, emphasizing its concern for the muhajir
families who have moved to the autonomous republic. With Ankara's
tacit consent, Turkish ships regularly deliver fuel and food to the
region. Ankara is financing the establishment of schools there that
use Turkish as the language of instruction. In June, the Turkish
ambassador to Georgia visited the region and said that Ankara is "not
indifferent to the processes unfolding in Abkhazia."

It goes without saying that, in its confrontation with the Georgian
authorities, Sukhumi is banking on the Abkhaz lobby in Turkey, which
is attempting to influence the policies of official Ankara. Last
October, Sukhumi received a visit from former Turkish Finance
Minister Zekiriat Emizel, who is of Abkhaz descent. He assured the
unrecognized republic's leaders that he was using his political
influence to try to turn Turkish public opinion and the attention of
the Turkish government toward Abkhazia's problems.