Rooted in long-standing historical, religious and economic differences, Georgian animosity toward neighboring Turkey, Georgia’s fifth-largest investor, appears to be growing in the Black Sea region of Achara. Recently, politicians eager for votes in Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary elections have brought the sentiments to a steady boil.
The number of Turkish citizens entering Georgia nearly tripled during the first six months of 2012 (658,000) compared with the same period in 2011 (252,000), according to the Turkish consulate in Batumi.
For many, Batumi, a port city of about 125,000 people that has undergone a no-holds-barred beautification campaign, is their first port of call.
Turkish families stroll in groups along the city’s picturesque seaside boulevard or shop in Turkish fashion boutiques in the historic district, while Turkish gamblers throng the casinos.
But their presence, for some Georgian politicians and voters, is not always welcomed.
Over the past several weeks, politicians connected with billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s opposition Georgian Dream coalition have whipped up anger among crowds of Batumi supporters with allegations that President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement Party is allowing “Turkish expansionism” that threatens Georgian culture and Georgian jobs. And even the country’s sovereignty itself.
They claim that the open-armed welcome for Turkish tourists and investors is ruining Batumi with growing prostitution and “the smell of Turkish donar [kebabs]” sold by street vendors.
While Ivanishvili himself has repeatedly stated that he does not support xenophobia, some Georgians see Turkey as an “acceptable” common enemy to target, commented Beka Mindiashvili, an expert at the Public Defender's Office’s Tolerance Centre.
“[The opposition] can’t say [the enemy] is the West or America,” Mindiashvili said, since most Georgians eagerly desire friendship with those powers. “It has to be connected to the opinions in society, and our history with Turkey is one of war…”
The Ottoman Empire controlled western Georgia from the late 16th century until 1878, when Achara, among other territories, was ceded to the Russian Empire, Georgia’s then suzerain. Turkey attempted to retake Achara in 1918, toward the end of World War I, but was repulsed. A second failed attempt came when the Red Army invaded the Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1921.
Memories of that history, often colored by suspicions of Islam and wariness of foreigners, still run strong. The anti-Turkey rhetoric does “not come from an empty space . . .” Mindiashvili said.
Few residents in Batumi were willing to go on the record about their feelings toward Turks, but some claimed that, despite Georgians’ traditional love of guests, the Turks are wearing out their welcome.
“There shouldn’t be so many Turks coming to Batumi…they don’t have any respect for our culture,” complained 57-year-old driver Giorgi Tkemaladze, annoyed by what he described as Turkish men publicly consorting with prostitutes. “When they are good and nice, let them come.”
While local observers doubt that such moods will translate “into aggression” against visiting Turks, “there is a tendency that it could turn more aggressive . . . “ commented Parmen Jalagonia, head of the Batumi office for the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association. *
Tensions in Batumi about Georgia’s relationship with Turkey started to increase last year, when the government announced plans to rebuild an historic mosque in the city near the gravesite of Georgians killed trying to end a brief Turkish occupation of Batumi in 1921, Jalagonia said. The plans are part of an agreement with the Turkish government to allow the Georgian restoration of medieval Georgian Orthodox churches in northeastern Turkey.
Construction on the mosque has not started, and negotiations about the project are still underway. Before the initial public reaction, which included protests, “xenophobic statements” were “quiet” and mostly linked to reports that the local government “sells property to Turkish investors for a symbolic price,” Jalagonia said.
The land-sale allegations could not be independently substantiated.
But Turkey’s economic muscle is the way many Georgians know the country best; most immediately, via cheap Turkish goods in supermarkets and bazaars.
Turkish investment stood at $43 million for the first two quarters of 2012, nearly half of its total of $75 million for all of 2011. According to Turkey’s Batumi consulate, Turkish companies have created jobs for 6,000 locals in Achara alone. Georgian government figures were not available.
The country also ranks, along with Russia, as a top destination for Georgian labor migrants. Georgians can enter Turkey visa-free, but now, like other foreign nationals, face tighter restrictions on long-term stays; part of a bid to curb illegal migration. The deportation of 142 Georgian migrants in August under the rules fueled popular resentment of Turkey for being “unfair.”
Mindiashvili, however, predicted that the influx of Turks with cash to spend means that “primitive Turkophobia” will not take root in Batumi or Achara, where official unemployment stands at 18 percent. Public Defender’s Office has not recorded any acts of violence toward local Turkish investors or visitors, he added.
“[T]his type of . . . xenophobia will not be accepted because people live better than they lived before this …” he said. “[O]pen commercial ties go only to the improvement of the economic lives of Georgians.”
The Turkish consulate in Batumi also has no record of violence against visiting Turks. Turkish Consul Engin Arıkan described the anti-Turkish rhetoric as “not good,” but stressed that it is limited to a “marginal group.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.