By Paul Goble
The just-completed visit to Turkey by Abkhaz President Sergey Bagapsh represents both a problem and an opportunity for Ankara and Moscow, involving as it does many issues far beyond the question of broader international recognition for that breakaway republic, according to a leading Russian expert on the region.
In an essay carried by the “Novaya politika” portal yesterday, Sergey Markedonov argues that Bagapsh’s April 7-10 visit to Turkey must be put in this broader context rather than seen as only an effort to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough for a country that is only “partially recognized” (novopol.ru/-turetskiy-voyaj-sergeya-bagapsha-text99510.html).
Ankara both through its embassy in Tbilisi and its foreign ministry have made clear that Bagapsh’s visit does not represent a change in Turkish policy and that Turkey “does not intend to recognize Abkhazia as an independent state.” Indeed, the Turkish foreign office said it continues to view Georgia as “a strategic partner,” something that recognizing Sukhumi would destroy.
As Markedonov points out, Bagapsh was the guest in Turkey not of the government but of the Federation of Abkhaz Associations and the Federation of Caucasus Associations, two umbrella groups which unite many of the large Caucasian diasporas living in the Turkish Republic.
As Turkish Foreign Minister Akhmet Davitoglu said in September 2009, Markedonov continues, Ankara “does want to become acquainted with Abkhazia and seek to regularize its relations with Georgia,” a statement that is part of the reason why many now call him “the Turkish Kissinger.”
Markedonov suggests that no one should see Ankara’s stance as “altruistic.” Instead, it reflects Turkey’s longstanding desire to “have contacts with all the players,” not only because it wants to exert its influence in the Caucasus more than in the past but also because of the large Caucasian diasporas in Turkey itself.
Such people, the Russian analyst continues are “voters” but “not only that.” Among them are “military men and employees of the special services and experts and journalists.” Consequently, “from a pragmatic point of view, it is wrong to ignore their positions.” And thus any effort to block the Abkhaz leader’s visit could have serious negative consequences at home.
But, Markedonov continues, this is precisely the reason why “Ankara is not recognizing the independence of Abkhazia.” That would create the kind of “precedent of ethnic self-determination” that it opposes. If it acted differently, then “representatives of the Circassian, Chechen and Crimean Tatar diasporas could demand” similar treatment from Ankara.
Moreover, if Turkey recognized Abkhazia, it would find itself at odds with Moscow, Kyiv and its partners in NATO and the European Union. “Striving to enter ‘a single Europe’ is also as strong as the desire not to allow the use of an Abkhaz precedent by Kurdish separatists” in Turkey itself, Markedonov points out.
At the same time, however, “Turkey is in a position to broaden ‘the Abkhaz window’ and to force Tbilisi to be more correct in issues concerning the detention of Turkish ships and in general in the struggle with ‘Turkish contraband,’ as the actions of Turkish sailors in Abkhaz waters are described officially by Georgia.”
Abkhazia and Bagapsh personally benefited from the visit, given the centrality of the diaspora in the thinking of Abkhazian leaders. But at the same time, the visit may complicate the relationship of this breakaway government with its Moscow sponsors who may not be entirely pleased to see Abkhazia behaving so independently.
That is at least in part because Moscow, after the events of August 2008, had won greater support among many of the North Caucasus diasporas in Turkey, some of whose leaders have refused to support calls to declare the events of 1864 a genocide or to take part in Circassian efforts to block the Sochi Olympics.
But however that may be, Markedonov concludes, “on the eve of the Sochi Olympiad [scheduled for 2014], the ‘Circassian quesiton’ is becoming extremely important.” Consequently, establishing “constructive relations with the Caucasus diasporas of Turkey with Abkhazia’s help could be an extremely important task for Moscow.”