BY STEVEN LUBER
Russo-Turkish tensions captured international headlines in late 2015, when a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 was shot down by Turkish air defenses. Turkey testified before the United Nations Security Council that the Russian jet had repeatedly violated Turkish airspace and had ignored several warnings to withdraw. Russia has denied these claims, insisting that their pilot had remained entirely within Syrian airspace. 
Though political tensions have visibly calmed since then, this episode brought meaningful Western attention back to the southern Eurasian frontier for the first time since the Russian-Georgian War in 2008. Moscow and Ankara remain regional rivals vying for influence throughout the region, especially in the South Caucasus, where the two powers are in closest geographic proximity. Of the three officially-recognized independent states – Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, it is Georgia which is the most important from the point of view of Russo-Turkish competition. Armenia has a close defense relationship with Russia, and Azerbaijan is under considerable Turkish influence. This oversimplifies the relationships, of course, as Russia and Azerbaijan also share a working, pragmatic relationship. Azeri solidarity with Turkey became very apparent when Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vigorously came to Azerbaijan’s defense and denounced Armenia’s role during the 2016 flare-up of conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh. 
Georgia, however, is balancing at the midpoint of the regional competition between Moscow and Ankara.
Inside Georgia, Turkey is far more visible in its campaign for soft power. Turkish-owned businesses, especially their popular restaurants and coffee shops, often display the Turkish flag prominently and offer multilingual menus that lead with Turkish. Efforts to promote the Turkish language in Georgia are also increasingly apparent, with many young Georgians signing up for classes for potential career advantages. Many Georgian students spend a semester in Istanbul or Ankara, taking advantage of comparatively easy enrollment opportunities. For its part, Turkey has also started offering Georgian language classes in primary schools, further strengthening ties between the two countries. 
Turkish influence is especially overt in the Georgian capital Tbilisi as well as in Batumi, capital of the historically-Muslim region of Adjara. Adjara is a semi-autonomous republic within the Georgian state, owing this status to an agreement following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Ottoman Empire, long-time ruler of Adjara, was forced to cede the territory to the Russian Empire following its defeat. However, the Ottomans first insisted that Russia grant the largely Muslim Adjara special status before agreeing to the handover, and that status has been maintained ever since. 
This history, combined with the region’s geographic proximity to the Turkish border, makes it a potential flashpoint for conflict, especially given recent initiatives that bring Batumi more into Turkey’s economic orbit.
Beginning in March 2015, the Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan Business Forum was established in Batumi to facilitate multilateral economic cooperation. Georgia’s Prime Minister at the time, Irakli Garibashvili, “welcomed the idea of hosting the Business Forum in Batumi, stated his hope to deepen Georgia’s friendship with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and noted they were the most important economic, trade and investment partners for Georgia.”  This was followed up two years later with another Forum, this time hosted in Istanbul. Organized by the Azerbaijan Export and Investments Promotion Foundation (AZPROMO), the Forum brought together hundreds of businessmen from all three countries to discuss multilateral projects including the Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipelines, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas line, and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. 
Predictably, not all Georgians share Tbilisi’s enthusiasm for such multilateral projects with their powerful neighbor.
Batumi in particular has seen a surge in anti-Turkish sentiment, owing both to historical distrust stemming from Ottoman occupation, and to what is seen as Ankara’s disproportionate influence in the region. One local official estimates that Turkish investment “represents roughly 80-90 percent of the total foreign investment in the region.”  This perception has left many local Georgians wary of Turkish influence, and contributed to the rise of the nationalist opposition party, the Alliance of Patriots. This populist movement ran on a distinctly anti-Turkish platform, but has also been described as being “disillusioned with the country’s Western-oriented political elite”. Some observers, have come so far as to even accuse the group of having “pro-Russian” leanings. 
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that support for a Russia-Georgia rapprochement may have increasing support. A study conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers illustrated that a larger portion of the Georgian population would support a Russo-Georgian marriage than an American-Georgian one.  Furthermore, 31% of those polled also were in favor of making Russian language instruction a mandatory subject in Georgian schools, second only to English at 55%.  Many attribute these facts to the strong influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which has made reconciliatory remarks toward the Moscow Patriarchate in recent years  and is itself increasingly central to Georgian political life.  While still decisively pro-Western, the Georgian political elite also seems increasingly wary of the erosion of Georgian culture in the face of Europeanization. In personal firsthand conversations, several Georgians have mentioned that Poland should be the model for European integration which Georgia should follow. Warsaw is firmly integrated in European political and defense structures, while still a very traditional society protective of its traditions and identity.
Russian experts are increasingly aware of the opportunities that these facts provide.
Elena Zavyalova of the Russian International Affairs Council observed that “the one obvious key area of interest concerns the energy sector. Importantly, this is not limited to supplies or the transportation of energy resources but rather offers opportunities for developing Georgian reserves that have remained of late largely unexplored. Various estimates suggest that Georgia has about 400 mln tons of coal, 580 million tons of oil and 98 bln cubic m of gas” (emphasis added). 
Such developments would necessitate a serious cost-benefit analysis in Tbilisi. While the exploration and extraction of Georgian energy reserves would benefit the national energy infrastructure, it would also increase Tbilisi’s dependence on Russian companies and be a step toward integrating Georgian infrastructure with that of Russia. Despite opposition from the pro-Western United National Movement towards such moves, Georgian officials seem increasingly willing to cooperate with Russian firms in these matters. In January 2017, Georgian government officials accepted a new gas transit agreement with the Russian state-owned company Gazprom, allowing gas to cross the country from Russia to Armenia in exchange for undisclosed transit fees. 
This is not to say that all has been smooth for Russian investors.
Protests against trade deals involving Russian state-owned companies have repeatedly attracted thousands of demonstrators, including a March 2016 demonstration that stretched a human chain for seven kilometers between the Russian Embassy and central Tblisi. 
Despite such obstacles, the ruling Georgian Dream party will likely continue its pragmatic, more diversified approach for the foreseeable future. It allows Georgia to cooperate economically on a global level, with Russia and Turkey, in addition to more distant partner. The 2014 Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreement with the European Union , and China’s $195 million Foreign Direct Investment  indicate Georgia’s continued openness to economic relationships beyond its immediate neighbors.
Such a balancing act allows Georgia to leverage its geographic position between Europe and Eurasia for its long-term benefit. Cooperate with all, be dependent on none.
- Allen F. Chew. “An Atlas of Russian History: Eleven Centuries of Changing Borders”, Yale University Press, 1970, p. 74
Image source: wikimedia.org
About the Author
Steven Luber is pursuing M.A. in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. His research focuses on armed conflicts, political risk, and religious movements.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.