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Will the Georgian Ajaria region follow the fate of Northern Cyprus?

Hamlet Chipashvili, a well-known Georgian political scientist and for long years senior advisor to late Eduard Shevardnadze (1928-2014) predicted last October the gradual loss of the autonomous region of Ajaria to Turkey.

According to Chipashvili, the financial activity of Ankara on the Georgian Black Sea coast has gone far beyond the usual economic cooperation with the South Caucasus Republic.

Indeed, Ankara’s meddling threatened the sovereignty of Tbilisi’s administration of the former Georgian President.

Indeed, Ajaria has presently been turned into a geopolitical battlefield between Ankara and Tbilisi, in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dreamer of the revival of the Ottoman Empire, wins without exercising much effort. The Turkish leader’s ambitions on Ajaria are fed by the fact that the Georgian region is the birthplace of his ancestors who lived there early in the 20th century.

In fact, the Southern half of the Batumi region (modern Ajaria) was ceded to Turkey under the terms of the Treaty of Kars, Soviet-Turkish Treaty of 1921. However, under the terms of the same treaty, the strategic port city of Batumi, would become part of Soviet Georgia as the Ajar ASSR (Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic).

Moreover, Batumi was designated as a free port city for the Black Sea littoral states. Indeed, till the dawn of the 21st century Ajaria enjoyed broad powers: tax revenue was kept for local development while the region run its own military and border police. All this dramatically changed with the rise of Mikhail Saakashvili to power in Tbilisi (2004). As Ajaria sought complete independence from Tbilisi, Saakashvili retaliated with economic blockade of the autonomous region. In the short-lived confrontation with the government in Tbilisi, the rebellious Ajarians blew up bridges, dismantled railways lines and destroyed other parts of infrastructure whilst the Ajar Army took up defensive positions on the border. Aslan Abashidze, the local strongman, heir of a princely dynasty idolized by the local population, who was leading the confrontation with Tbilisi was forced to resign as his resources were not sufficient to take on Saakashvili. The latter sent off his political proteges to run Batumi while many of the region’s autonomy powers were removed.

What is interesting is the Islamic-Turkish angle to the whole Saakashvili affair: through his mother, who was closely connected with Turkish businessmen and Islamic preachers, he allowed such Islamic-oriented Turkish business interests to gain foothold on the Georgian Black Sea coast. In the pursuit of his own personal gain, Saakashvili’s plan was to turn his Batumi’s coastal area into the ‘Las Vegas of the Black Sea’. As he aspired to join NATO, the former Georgian President’s deal with Erdogan included the expectation for the latter’s aid in pushing for Georgia’s accession to the Euro-Atlantic defence structures.

Unsurprisingly, under the favourable regime afforded by Saakashvili, within a few years Erdogan’s army of Islam-rooted entrepreneurs have dominated the region. Consequently, not only local business interests but also wage workers have been pushed into the background as the Turkish businessmen unobstructed brought their compatriot workforce with them.

In fact, Turkish investments in Ajaria work exclusively for the benefit of themselves: all financial flows in the Georgian autonomous region are under the strict control of Ankara. For example, Batumi’s international airport, built by a Turkish construction company, practically functions as a Turkish airport for domestic flights, as the only operated flights originate from Ankara and Istanbul. Moreover, according to the relevant Georgian-Turkish bilateral agreement Turkish nationals are exempt from passport and customs control!

The ‘soft squeeze’ of the indigenous Georgian population has been the order of the day in Ajaria: Islam-rooted Turkish business leaders not only discriminate against the locals in hiring workers but intrude also the religious sphere: desecration of Christian churches comes with a creeping imposition of Islamic faith and traditions. In those fifteen years, these Turkish businessmen have been acting as if they are the absolute rulers of Ajaria, feeling that the iron shadow of powerful Muslim Brother Erdogan will thwart any attempt by the Georgian authorities at protesting the anti-Georgian state of affairs.

The current situation in Ajaria bears much resemblance to the fate of Northern Cyprus, where in the past forty-six years, the majority Greek Orthodox population has been expelled. In both cases, the long-term expansionist design of Ankara has been premised on the use of the Turkish minorities in order to alienate parts of neighbouring states. After the expulsion following the double Turkish invasion of 1974, more than a third of the island’s territory was unilaterally declared the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, a secessionist act condemned immediately by a UN Security Council resolution in 1983. Despite the lack of international recognition ‘TRNC’’s ‘unilateral declaration of independence’ UDI was never revoked. If anything, the self-styled ‘TRNC’ as a puppet state of Ankara, lays claim in the hydrocarbon-rich sea shelf around the island.

Parliamentary elections are due in Georgia next October. Under the above described circumstances, a possible comeback to power of Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party would spell disaster for the country. Many Ajarians as well as Georgians see the possible re-rise of Saakashvili as the final act in the process of Ajaria’s annexation by Greater Turkey.

The fear appears that the re-emergence of Saakashvili in the political arena as the Head of the Executive Committee of the National Reform Council of Ukraine will allow him to resume the role of Erdogan’s lackey.

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