The two countries have enjoyed friendly relations since the first years of Georgian independence from the Soviet Union, and the last decade has seen even further improvements in these ties. Turkey and Georgia adopted visa-free travel in 2006 and since last May the two countries’ citizens have been able to travel freely with their national identity documents -- meaning that no passport is needed.
Travel between Turkey and Georgia
“On some days [since the initiation of passport-free travel], almost 8,000 Turkish tourists enter Georgia,” said Lebanidze. He deemed this a great success and added that Turkish businesses have invested more in Georgia’s tourism sector since the implementation of the new regulation.
There is a direct land connection between Turkey and Georgia, as well as three flights per day between Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and İstanbul. One flight per day also runs between Batumi and İstanbul.
The countries are also cooperating very well in transportation. The Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway project, which is expected to be concluded in 2013, will not only be an asset for bilateral trade relations, but also a unique way to access the large Central Asian market. Currently, Turkey can only access Central Asia via Iran.
“The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway will go beyond Central Asia, stretching from London to Azerbaijan,” the ambassador said. He expressed his gratefulness for the project.
Last but not least, energy cooperation between the two countries is highly developed. Turkey and Georgia are connected via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, a project that carries oil between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The pipeline has a carrying capacity of 1 million barrels of oil per day.
Parallel to the BTC pipeline runs the South Caucasus Pipeline -- also called the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) pipeline -- which transports natural gas from the Shah Deniz field in the Caspian Sea to Turkey. It follows the route of the BTC crude oil pipeline through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey.
In the long run, the BTE pipeline might even supply Europe with natural gas from the Caspian Sea via the Nabucco pipeline, which is still in the planning stage. This proposed pipeline will start at the Georgian-Turkish border and end in Central Europe, crossing Bulgaria, Romania and Germany. Lebanidze expressed his high hopes for the completion of Nabucco, which is expected to be operational in 2017.
“Being dependent on Russia for energy, and neglecting to diversify energy suppliers and transit routes, will inevitably increase oil prices in Europe and harm Europe’s level of prosperity. Nabucco is very important for this diversification and preventing Russia from being the only supplier for Europe’s energy market,” stated the ambassador.
He dismissed claims that the South Stream pipeline project would outflank Nabucco, saying there is enough gas to go through both projects.
Turkey signed an agreement with Russia to build part of the South Stream undersea gas pipeline in Turkey’s Black Sea waters late in 2011. Russian politicians called the agreement a “new year present” from Turkey to Russia.
The deal will allow Russia to construct part of the South Stream pipeline beneath Turkish waters in the Black Sea. The South Stream pipeline will run from Russia to Bulgaria, also delivering natural gas to Europe. The $21.5 billion pipeline project will transport up to 63 billion cubic meters of gas starting in 2015, if completed according to plan.
The two countries also made significant progress in a project to transfer electricity across their border, which will have the capacity to transfer 1,000 megawatts. The project is expected to be completed within the year.
The trade volume between Turkey and Georgia reached $1.5 billion in 2011. In the last five years, Georgia’s trade volume with Turkey has constantly increased, thanks to a free trade agreement signed in 2007. Turkey is currently Georgia’s biggest trading partner. Turkey mainly exports food and electrical appliances to Georgia, and imports electrical engineering products and non-ferrous metals.
Due to the Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement, also signed in 2007, the value of Turkish investments in Georgia hit $1 billion late in 2011. Turkish investors have taken a special interest in construction in Georgia and recently invested much in Georgian hydroelectric projects.
Turkey and the South Caucasus
Turkey has certain priorities in its policy regarding the South Caucasus. These include a secure environment for countries in the region as well as establishing a lasting dialogue and mutual interdependence. Looking to its strategic importance as an energy corridor for Turkey and the shortest link between Turkey and Central Asia, Georgia is not an insignificant country. Georgia is the most important gate for Turkic states like Azerbaijan thanks to the exemplary bilateral relations that exist between them.
Turkey is committed to supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity. It opposed a Russian decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations in August 2008. It was soon after a 2008 crisis unfolded between Georgia and Russia over the mountainous region of South Ossetia, which is home to some 30,000 people, that Russia recognized it as an independent nation.
Georgia is very eager to become a member of NATO because of the threat of Moscow, which continuously stresses it is ready to do anything to protect the breakaway region of South Ossetia. “In order to protect its territorial integrity, independence and existence, Georgia needs a strong alliance. That is why we want to enter NATO and to upgrade our military capabilities to NATO standards. Georgia strongly supports NATO missions and puts great emphasis on regional stability,” said Lebanidze.
He also expressed his gratitude to Turkey for supporting Georgia’s NATO bid.
Due to the constant threat from Russia, Turkey has helped strengthen the Georgian military by conducting joint military exercises and supplying it with arms. The two countries also signed three agreements for cooperation in defense in 2001. Georgia’s Marnueli Air Base in Tbilisi was modernized by the Turkish military also in 2001.
Furthermore, Georgia appreciates the political support of Turkey. In Georgia’s new national security concept, adopted by its parliament in December to analyze and set forth Tbilisi’s regional and international security challenges, Turkey is defined as Georgia’s leading regional partner.
A model relationship
Georgia seems to be the only country where Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors” has been successfully implemented, considering the situations of its southern neighbors, Iraq and Syria, and chilly relations with those to the north, including Greece, compared with the current level of political and economic partnership enjoyed by Turkey and Georgia.
Lebanidze assessed a recent statement by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that NATO’s Article 5 may be used to protect Turkish national security in the face of increasing tension along its Syrian border as a “correct statement.”
“NATO has a responsibility to protect Turkish borders,” said Erdoğan during an official visit to China last week, signaling that Turkey may officially ask NATO members to apply Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which says that an attack on any member shall be considered an attack on all, if the situation in Syria becomes a serious enough threat to Turkish national security.
Criticizing Russia’s backing of Syria, Lebanidze said: “What Syrian people aspire for, no matter which sect or ethnicity they are from, is a pluralistic democracy and free elections. Russia has its own political calculations and strategic interests in Syria and the Middle East. But when it comes to such violent atrocities, political interests should be set aside.”
Currently serving his second term as the Georgian ambassador to Turkey, Lebanidze speaks fluent Turkish and wrote his doctoral thesis on Turkish political history. He compared the time he first came to Turkey in the 1970s with the present and lauded Turkey’s progress since.
“I can comfortably say that Turkey has broken away from its relationship with the atmosphere of conflict it had in the 1970s. It is now a very modern country with political stability and has made significant economic progress. Turkey has become the leading country in its region in the last five years and was an inspiration for the countries of the Arab Spring in the Middle East. This is very pleasing to its friendly neighbor, Georgia,” said the ambassador.
‘Russia should keep its hands off Caucasus’
Russia has pursued an expansionist policy under President Vladimir Putin that has disrespected the autonomy of countries in the South Caucasus, including Georgia. It should have left those countries alone to ensure stability in the region, according to Ambassador Lebanidze.
Lebanidze harshly criticized a Putin project to create a “Eurasian Union” between ex-Soviet countries, claiming that “this is the reawakening of the old expansionist Soviet foreign policy,” because it would enable Russia to more easily meddle with the internal affairs of the newly independent ex-Soviet countries.
Russia’s former prime minister and current president, Vladimir Putin, declared his “Eurasian Union” project in the fall of 2011, bringing together ex-Soviet states with the eventual aim of removing all barriers to trade and the movement of capital and labor.
Calling attention to Russian-supported separatist tendencies in Georgia, the ambassador claimed that “Georgia has no problems with its neighbors. And actually it could be a stable country, with peace between all religions and ethnicities, if there was no Russian influence.”
Georgia’s new security concept, released in a policy paper adopted by the parliament in December, openly describes Russia as an occupying presence and states that Moscow’s primary goal is to turn Georgia into a “failed state” in order to derail the country from its path towards Euro-Atlantic integration and to “forcibly return Georgia to the Russian orbit.” Another important issue is the threat of terrorism; the new document declares that “Russia uses [South Ossetia and Abkhazia] for recruiting and training terrorists with the aim of carrying out terrorist acts on Georgian territory.”
Russia has maintained a large, long-term military presence in Georgia. Early in 2010, Russia signed a deal for a military base in Georgia’s break-away region of Abkhazia. Russia recognized the region as an independent state in August 2008, when it launched an assault on Georgia over a dispute regarding another pro-Russian breakaway region, South Ossetia, in a five-day war.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not recognized as states by the US or the European Union.
Georgia and Russia will only have normal bilateral relations once Russia has withdrawn its troops, stated Lebanidze.