Georgian ambassador: Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway shortest route for ISAF's return

The top Georgian diplomat in Ankara Irakli Koplatadze  has said that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway offers the cheapest and shortest way for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to return home.


“We hope that Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway may provide an alternative route to the ISAF for a reverse transit of forces and cargo as it is the shortest and cheapest way to return Europe,” said Irakli Koplatadze, the Georgian ambassador to Turkey, in an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman.


When completed, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project will unite the railway networks of Central Asia, the Caucasus and China with those of Turkey and Europe, allowing easy shipping of cargo between Asia and Europe. The railway project is expected to be complete by next year.


ISAF is a NATO-led security force in Afghanistan that was established by the United Nations Security Council in December 2001. According to NATO, 47 nations had contributed 97,920 troops as of June 24, 2013.


The ambassador said that Georgia has already held talks with European countries to present the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway as the shortest and cheapest option for ISAF's return from Afghanistan to Europe.


Georgia and Turkey cannot be ignored geopolitically


Turkey and Georgia are partners in various other projects, ranging from defense to oil pipeline projects. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline is already finished. The 1,768-kilometer crude-oil pipeline connects Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, with Ceyhan, a port on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, via Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. The BTC's inauguration ceremony was held in Azerbaijan on May 25, 2005, with the attendance of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and then-Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.


The South Caucasus Pipeline, as known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline, runs parallel to the BTC but terminates in the Erzurum province of Turkey. The first natural gas from Azerbaijan was pumped through the pipeline on May 21, 2006.


The Nabucco project is a proposed natural gas pipeline between the Caspian Sea and Europe crossing Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The Turkish-Azeri Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) and the Swiss-Norwegian Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) projects have emerged as shorter alternatives to the eastern and western sections of the Nabucco, respectively.


As of June 2013, the Shah Deniz consortium, which operates the largest gas field in Azerbaijan, had chosen TANAP and TAP over the eastern and western branches of the competing Nabucco project. Koplatadze said Nabucco's fates have fluctuated: “While it was very optimistic some day, it turned out ultimately pessimistic the next day.” He added that even though the project's name and structure have changed, it will be very difficult for Europe to ignore Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan economically and especially geopolitically. The Georgian part of the route is unavoidable; whether Nabucco or TANAP is chosen, any pipeline must pass through Georgian territory.


“The joint oil pipeline, gas pipeline and railway projects in which Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia are cooperating are not only economic deals, but also important steps towards security and stability of the region,” Koplatadze said.


Turkey among Georgia's most important defense partners


Georgia wants to complete its NATO accession process, which officially began in 2005. This year, Georgia became the largest non-NATO contributor state to ISAF; twenty-two of the 1,561 Georgian soldiers in Afghanistan have been killed since 2004. Koplatadze, appreciative of Turkey's support for Georgia's NATO bid, said: “Turkey supports our inspiration to join NATO. It's not only declarations and statements but real assistance towards strengthening our regional security and stability within the frame of NATO.”


Providing training and technical assistance to the Georgian military, Turkey has been one of Georgia's most important defense partners since Georgian independence. Georgian soldiers are currently getting training in Turkish military and naval schools as well as military hospitals. “Georgia's relationship with Turkey along with Azerbaijan is not mainly in military field, but focused more on maintaining security and stability of the Caucasus region,” Koplatadze said. Last year, Turkish, Georgian and Azerbaijani military forces jointly held a military exercise called Caucasus Eagle, to be held annually from now on.


Geneva discussions first step toward solution in South Ossetia, Abkhazia


According to Koplatadze, the Georgian government elected last October is not considering military action to take back the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; instead, it is trying to find common ground with the region's residents to end their isolation from the rest of the world. “We have already signed obligation for non-use of force and fire. We want to cooperate with Ossetians and Abkhazians in new investment projects. We know it is not easy, but we started making the first steps,” he said.


Russia and Georgia fought a bloody five-day war in August 2008, after which the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia seceded from Georgia.


The war was followed by the official recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states by Russia and a few other members of the UN, while Georgia accused the Russian army of occupying both regions. Koplatadze said the Georgian government has three main “paths” to take in stabilizing the issue. “The first path is to continue to represent Georgia in the Geneva Discussions. We might not have come to an agreement yet. But without any alternative the Geneva talks are the only international platform where all parties to the conflict can meet and talk with each other,” Koplatadze said.


The Geneva International Discussions, co-chaired by the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), are continuing between the parties to the conflict, Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Russia. The 24th round of the discussions was held in Geneva at the end of June. Georgia is demanding that Russia sign a non-use of force agreement, and Moscow is insisting that Tbilisi sign the same with the de facto authorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That would amount to Georgian recognition of their independence and mean that Russia would no longer be classified as an occupant and could escape obligations laid out in the six-point cease-fire plan that ended the armed conflict in August 2008. Georgia is looking for a way to break out of the deadlock without having to recognize the territories as legal entities. Today there are still thousands of Russian troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.


“Secondly, special representatives of prime ministers of Russia and Georgia have newly started negotiations talks separate from Geneva discussions as well. They are not speaking about red lines with regards to South Ossetia and Abkhazia yet, but pure humanitarian and trade issues. We have already reached some progress,” the top Georgian diplomat to Ankara said. For example, Russia has authorized the sale of Georgian wine and spirits on the Russian market, which has been closed to Georgian products for about five years. Koplatadze describes this as the first step the two nations have taken toward each other in many years.


Georgia expects to sell around 10 million bottles of wine and cognac in Russia in 2014. The restoration of direct flights between Moscow and Tbilisi, Koplatadze added, is being discussed in negotiations between Georgia and Russia. However, the Georgian ambassador complained about Russia's attitude and said Russian troops seem to be slowly pushing the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia closer to Tbilisi. “It is unbelievable to see Russian soldiers changing the borderline towards Georgian villages by using actual wired fences where there are families who live inside!” Koplatadze said. The issue was raised in the last session of the Geneva discussions in June. He continued: “But Russians don't answer any question or try to justify their acts. They just wait for Georgians to get used to the new border that is closer to their houses.”


The Georgian government's third path is to maintain direct contact with the people of Ossetia and Abkhazia. “This is people-to-people, project-to-project talks such as restoration of a bridge, a road or treating some elderly in hospitals. We speak about small-scale projects, common investment issues. But it is moving very slowly,” Koplatadze said. He added that the new government, which is free of burdens that bogged down its predecessor in relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is able to talk with the parties to the conflict much more easily. “So this is the triangle we communicate for the purpose of negotiation.”


Direct contact with Abkhazia gives false expectations


Georgia banned economic and commercial activity in these two territories after the five-day war with Russia. Russia-backed Abkhazia, whose Black Sea coastline and de facto borders are controlled by Russian forces, has threatened to destroy Georgian ships in retaliation. Georgia is seeking to block all trade with Abkhazia via the Black Sea without its supervision.


On Aug. 15, 2009, a Turkish ship, the Buket, was boarded by the Georgian Coast Guard and brought to the port of Poti, Georgia. The ship was then taken to the port of Batumi to be sold and the ship's crew taken into custody. There were 15 Turkish employees and two Turkish interns aboard the ship, which was carrying 2,800 tons of fuel from the Turkish Petroleum Refineries Corporation (TÜPRAŞ), Turkey's largest oil refining company, to the Abkhaz port of Sukhumi. In April, two Turkish ships, the Denfa Demet and the New Star, were also commandeered by Georgia and brought to the port of Poti. These were not the first vessels detained by Georgia for trading with Abkhazia. According to official figures, Georgia seized more than 40 ships between 1999 and 2003 and 22 ships between 2004 and 2006 on charges of the “illegal crossing of Georgian waters.”


“Our government position is clear that we are very sensitive to any case where some ship cargo entered to Abkhazia, bypassing Tbilisi customs. It gives a wrong message and false expectations for Abkhazians,” Koplatadze said. He added that the Turkish government normally supports Georgia's territorial integrity, but that some Turkish companies, perhaps unfamiliar with the bilateral relationship, shipped goods to Abkhazia through Georgian waters in the Black Sea -- and that other companies that were aware of the situation tried to break the embargo anyway.


“Because of these issues … we established a committee to decide which ships should go and how should they go,” he said. The committee, which voted on its decisions, discussed several solutions to the problem. “Second option was to have the customs in Trabzon. Then we discussed how we could avoid misunderstandings and not to offend our Turkish partners. The committee met several times. But because we have not faced another conflict again, there have been no need of a meeting for more than two years,” Koplatadze said.


He added that the Georgian government takes a rigid attitude on the issue not over customs revenues but political concerns. “We don't want ships to enter to our sea through Abkhazia without having the information about the place of discharge and the sort of humanitarian aid that are carried by the ships. We cannot afford to take that risk of allowing those ships who might be … smuggling, assaulting and carrying weapons to Abkhazia,” Koplatadze said.


“The best way, I think, Georgia should be notified at least what kind of ship goes where, with how much of cargo, and they should be open to any control by Georgian officials somewhere such as Trabzon or some other place.”


The newly elected Georgian government is not Russia-affiliated


The top Georgian diplomat in Ankara also touched on the controversy over whether the new Georgian government is closer to Russia than the last. Koplatadze said the Georgian government's main priorities in foreign policy are to sign an Association Agreement with the EU and become a member of NATO; Russia opposes both. “Russians are not happy with our EU and NATO aims. … But we have committed to these goals wholeheartedly. So it could not be claimed that our new government is Russian-affiliated or pro-Russian,” Koplatadze said. “We want to somehow put in their minds that in the 21st century Russians should not have an occupation army in Abkhazia. They should focus on trade rather than Kalashnikov. Dialog, and nothing else.”


EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule has said that the Association Agreement negotiations could be finished as soon as November 2013. Georgia's imports and exports are expected to increase by 7.5 percent and 12 percent, respectively, after the agreement is signed, and the country's GDP is predicted to rise by 4.3 percent in the long-term. Moreover, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO, has said that Georgia is “a lot closer to NATO.”


Dichotomy in power caused Georgia to lose momentum in foreign relations


The relationship between Georgia and Turkey seems to have lost momentum in recent years. According to the ambassador, this stems from Georgia's current political situation. “There emerged a dichotomy in the country after the last year's elections. The president is now in opposition of the newly elected government,” Koplatadze said, adding: “The president has vetoed the appointment of most of the ambassadors whom the new government suggested. It is kind of a deadlock. This is why the pace of Georgian relations with many countries seems to have slowed down.” Georgia didn't appoint an ambassador to Turkey for almost a year, and still hasn't appointed one to the United Kingdom.


“In October, we'll have presidential elections. Whoever will be the winner, I don't think that it will be such a deadlock that we are experiencing now, because the transition of power will be complete,” he added.


Koplatadze also addressed centuries-old cultural relations between Georgia and Turkey. He said he appreciated a project to rehabilitate the medieval Oshki Monastery in Çamlıyamaç, a village in Turkey's Erzurum province, adding, “The cultural heritage of Turkey and Georgia is very rich. I hope the cultural cooperation between our countries will be an exemplary relationship for the other nations of the region.”


Regarding the Turkish schools that are operating in Georgia, he said: “If the schools were artificial and no one wanted to go, they would be closed down. There is a demand for such institutions and they are welcomed to operate in Georgia. But the Georgian diaspora who lives in Turkey is good enough in number to receive education of Georgian language, literature and culture. If Turkish schools can operate in Georgia, that means it is time for some Georgian schools to run in Turkey as well.” Today, there are Georgian-language programs at Turkey's Kafkas and Ardajan universities. Additionally, Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) broadcasts Georgian-language radio and TV programs every week.


Noting the interdependence of today's international relations, the ambassador underlined -- in a way praising cooperation between Georgia and Turkey -- that countries are as independent as they are interdependent.


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