Russia-Turkey: Talking amongst friends about Georgia
When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin comes to İstanbul on Tuesday, he will have a wide range of issues to discuss with his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and President Abdullah Gül, both at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and in bilateral talks.
What issues are unlikely to make it onto the agenda, however, are the unresolved conflicts in Georgia, or more specifically in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
This omission is unfortunate and even surprising. In South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia has recently stationed between 8,000 and 10,000 troops some 150 kilometers from the Turkish border. Surely the situation in these two entities is key to any efforts at confidence building, cooperation and security in the Turkish-Russian neighborhood.
In August 2008, after Russia went to war with Georgia, it recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Since then, both have become increasingly dependent on Moscow. All but four countries in the world regard South Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of Georgia. Yet in practice there are almost no ties between Georgians, Abkhaz and Ossetians, who can no longer travel freely, trade or, for the 20,000 ethnic Georgians displaced in 2008, return to their homes. Russia has also suspended all official governmental contacts with Georgia.
In South Ossetia, Russia staffs over half the government, donates 99 percent of the budget and provides security with at least 4,000 troops and 800 border guards. The 2008 war dealt a heavy physical, economic, demographic and political blow. The permanent population had been shrinking since the early 1990s and now is unlikely to be much more than 30,000. The $840 million (or $28,000 per person) Russia has so far contributed has not significantly improved local conditions, due to corruption. With its traditional trading routes to the rest of Georgia closed, the Ossetian economy has been reduced to little more than a service provider for the Russian military and construction personnel. Little distinguishes South Ossetia today from one of Russia’s North Caucasus republics.
In return for recognition and aid, Russia obtained highly prized strategic assets in Abkhazia, where it is spending $465 million to refurbish and build military bases, including Gudauta, the largest military airfield in the South Caucasus. Russian recognition of Abkhazia came 15 years after Tbilisi lost effective control of the territory and some 210,000 ethnic Georgians were forcibly displaced. During those years, the entity of some 200,000 people took steps to build up its own institutions, economy and rule of law. Now, after Russian recognition, some Abkhazians are not happy with their deepening dependence on their northern neighbor and are concerned with becoming overly reliant economically, politically and culturally. Yet they still view Moscow as their primary security guarantor.
On the other side of the administrative boundary line separating South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, some 200 unarmed European Union monitors are part of an EU monitoring mission. Russia refuses to allow them access. In 2009, Russia vetoed the extension of United Nations and Organization and Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) missions in Georgia that covered South Ossetia and Abkhazia respectively. Russia is also unwilling to implement its August and September 2008 ceasefire commitments, which oblige it to reduce its troop levels to pre-August 2008 numbers, withdraw from previously unoccupied areas and allow access for international monitoring and humanitarian assistance. This is contributing to instability in the region.
Russia is building South Ossetia and Abkhazia up as military buffers against Georgia and any further expansion of NATO. In an environment where the NATO-Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) pact boundary that once separated Turkey from the Soviet Union has disappeared, this heavy military deployment and the refusal to cooperate with international organizations make little strategic sense. Turkish and Russian leaders have met five times in each others’ countries during the past two years. This should be a good juncture to address this militarization, the future of Russia-Georgia relations and South Ossetia-Abkhazia.
Russia and Turkey are strategic allies: Trade between the two countries doubled from 2004-2009, Russia is Turkey’s second biggest trading partner and only Germany sends more tourists to Turkey’s vacation spots. The two share a keen interest in bringing peace and stability to the South Caucasus, where both have deep historical ties. So far neither the EU nor the US have had much luck at encouraging Prime Minister Putin to begin implementing the cease-fire and providing access to international organizations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If Turkey wants to take a regional leadership role in support of peace and stability, and have a real impact, the meetings this week should not ignore the volatile conflict in Georgia, which at least physically, still separates it from Russia.
is the director of the Europe Program at the International Crisis Group.