Georgians Wary of Turkey’s Rising Influence in Batumi
by Joshua Kucera
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech last October in Rize, less than 100 miles from the Georgian border, to justify Turkey’s military actions in Syria and Iraq. During the address, he evoked the Ottoman Empire, arguing that Ankara’s interests coincide, at least emotionally, with those of the Golden Porte.
“Our physical boundaries are different from the boundaries of our heart,” he said. By way of example, he asked: “Is it possible to separate Rize from Batumi?”
The mention of Batumi, Georgia’s second-largest city, received scant attention from most of the world. But in Georgia it was cause for alarm about what, exactly, was meant by “boundaries of the heart.”
Turkey’s ambassador to Tbilisi was forced to clarify that Georgians “misunderstood” Erdogan’s comments. “Among the neighbors of Georgia, Turkey is the only country which does not have questions regarding borders,” said the ambassador, Levent Gümrükçü. “Batumi is Georgia and Rize is Turkey and it will always be this way.”
These days, though, it does seem that less and less separates Rize from Batumi.
Batumi now has a population of about 150,000 and is the center of the Autonomous Republic of Ajara, in the country’s southwestern corner. Ajara has not been part of Turkey since the Ottomans ceded it to the Russian Empire in 1878. But over the past decade and a half, Turkish investments have poured into the region, and today Batumi’s center and the Black Sea shore have been remade by rows of luxury hotels and casinos, largely built with Turkish money. While the government does not release figures on the levels of Turkish investment in Ajara, it represents roughly 80-90 percent of the total foreign investment in the region, a former regional government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A section of the city’s historic center, once an Armenian quarter, is now dominated by Turkish restaurants, bars, and teahouses. Dozens of “Thai massage” parlors, fronts for prostitution, cater to mostly male Turkish visitors. Far more Turkish than Georgian is heard, and restaurant touts do not bother with any other language, beckoning visitors with “buyurun, hoş geldiniz.”
At the same time that its commercial presence has grown, Turkey also has sought to increase its political influence in its former territory. Erdogan has increasingly weighed in on Ajara’s affairs, supporting the construction of a new mosque in Batumi and asking the Georgian government to close down the casinos there. In February, Georgia’s government shut down a Batumi school associated with Fethullah Gülen after Turkish officials criticized it.
Georgians also look with a wary eye to Turkey’s growing embrace of its Ottoman heritage and the rise in popularity of irredentist maps showing Turkey with borders expanded into the former Ottoman Empire, usually including Ajara.
All of this is feeding a growing sense of mistrust of Turkey in Batumi. “The historical context very strongly affects these processes,” said Ruslan Baramidze, an anthropologist at Batumi’s Shota Rustaveli State University who studies Islam in Georgia.
Baramidze noted that in addition to Ajara’s three centuries under Ottoman rule, during which most of the population converted to Islam, the region’s autonomous status is also the legacy of Turkish influence. The 1921 Treaty of Kars, which delineated the border between the Soviet Union and the Turkish Republic, stipulated that Ajara would be granted autonomy within Georgia because of a Turkish demand that the area’s Muslim character be respected.
“This history is always in the background, so this issue of Turkish influence is felt much more strongly here in Batumi than in Tbilisi, for example,” Baramidze said.
The former government of Mikheil Saakashvili opened the door to the large Turkish presence, with its enthusiastic embrace of foreign investors and geopolitical orientation toward NATO. The then-opposition Georgian Dream coalition tried to use that against Saakashvili, exploiting anti-Turkish sentiment in its victorious campaign in Georgia’s 2012 parliamentary elections. But since taking power the GD has softened its tone, and the anti-Turkish niche has been filled by a more nationalist party, the Alliance of Patriots, which campaigns on a strongly anti-Turkish message. The alliance’s strong performance was the surprise of the 2016 parliamentary elections.
Resentment toward Turkey has manifested itself most sharply in public opposition to the construction of a new mosque in Batumi. Currently, the city has only one, the 19th century Orta Mosque, which Muslim leaders say is too small to accommodate all the city’s worshippers. One plan, sponsored by Turkey, was to recreate a former Ottoman mosque, named after an Ottoman sultan. But that ran into significant public opposition heavily inflected with anti-Turkish sentiments, including baseless rumors that it would be built on top of the graves of Georgian soldiers who fought with Soviet forces in 1921 against Turkey. The plan is no longer to recreate the Ottoman mosque, but to build a mosque with solely Georgian money, though the details have yet to be decided, said Jemal Paksadze, the former chief mufti of Georgia and now an advisor to the Ajaran government on Islamic issues.
Turkey’s heavy-handed interventions have only poured fuel on the fire, locals say. Paksadze said he distinguishes between “educated and uneducated” Turks, and highlighted the good that Turkey has done for Georgia, notably Ankara’s support for Tbilisi in its 2008 war with Russia. Turkey funded the reconstruction of 150 homes in Gori that were destroyed in the fighting.
In Batumi, though, Turks often behave with a proprietary attitude, Paksadze said. “It’s citizens of Turkey who are to blame for the poor relations,” he said. “When I used to work at the mosque, Turks would come here and say ‘we built this.’ And I would correct them: no, it was Georgians who built it.” A security guard at the mosque, Tamaz Tshiteladze, chimed in: “Even the Turkish consul, when he brings Turkish visitors here, he says ‘Ajara is ours.’”
(The Turkish consulate in Batumi told EurasiaNet that the consul had “made no such remarks.”)
Local attitudes toward the large Turkish presence are complex and evolving, said Keti Dumbadze, a local journalist. In the early years of Turkish investment, many in Batumi were uncomfortable working for Turkish companies, particularly young women, in the belief that Turkish men were lecherous, Dumbadze said. But with the passage of time that fear has faded and people appreciate the good salaries paid by Turkish companies. These days, it is becoming common for young people to try to learn Turkish to improve their career prospects, she said.
Nevertheless, social tensions remain. Fights in nightclubs between Georgian and Turkish men, usually over women, are common, and women sometimes feel uncomfortable walking around the Turkish quarter. Men there will “look very directly at you,” Dumbadze said. “It makes me feel a little like a foreigner, it’s an uncomfortable situation and so sometimes I avoid the area.”