Turkey is spreading its soft power in Georgia, a Caucasus country at the intersection of Europe and Asia currently gripped by political crisis. As a strong ally and strategic partner, Washington should help Georgia to resist the rising Turkish influence. If the U.S. doesn’t step in, it risks witnessing the region getting Islamized.
Delivering his annual speech to the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump praised nationalism. He called on countries to put their own interests and people first, take pride in national identities and cherish their histories, cultures, and heritages.
In a 35-minute speech, Trump denoted,
“The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.”
Unfortunately, not all countries adhere to this assessment. Take Turkey, for example, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acts like an authoritarian who has given up on liberal democracy in favor of Islamist political values. Ankara has even begun to actively promote these values in neighboring states. Georgia is such a country.
Since the restoration of Georgia’s independence in 1991, Washington has actively supported the country’s sovereignty by strengthening its democratic institutions, developing its market economy, and integrating Georgia into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.
This ongoing American support is reflected in multi-year civil society development programs that target systemic weaknesses in Georgia’s democracy. This Christian country, surrounded by Muslim nations, may need serious assistance from Washington to protect its cultural heritage and repulse Islamism imposed by Turkey. While Georgia alone is unable to confront its serious-minded neighbor, calls to confront Turkification are increasing throughout the country.
For example, on August 12, during the celebration of the national holiday Didgoroba, former prime minister Mamuka Bakhtadze said that the Didgori Battle “continues for each citizen of Georgia.” In 1121, the Georgian king defeated the army of Seljuk Turks in Didgori, leading to Tbilisi’s liberation and Georgia’s unification.
Turkey’s Sphere of Interest
There is no doubt that the Georgian lands are within Turkey’s sphere of special interest. In 2016, Erdogan declared that “Turkey is not just Turkey.” He added that his country is “responsible to the hundreds of millions of our brothers in the geographical area to which we are connected by historical and cultural ties.”
Georgia’s four southern regions that border Turkey are facing the Turkish expansion more often than the rest of the country. Ankara uses soft power, goes undercover, and does not count on an instant return of invested funds. Turkey focuses on the religious, economic, and educational components of its influence.
In addition, in the two southeastern regions where the Azerbaijani community lives, Turkey is actively using the assistance of fraternal Azerbaijan. Remarkably, the entire network of pro-Turkish public organizations and humanitarian projects operates under the auspices of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency – TİKA. This structure often acts as a cover for Turkey’s national intelligence organization.
Pro-Turkish Organizations in Georgia
Georgia’s Muslims make up about 10 percent of the population, and this amount is constantly growing. Since the beginning of the 2000s, Turkish missionaries have been carrying out active Islamization in Georgia.
In 2002, Turkey financially supported the creation of an Islamic madrasah in the village of Meore Kesalo on the border with Azerbaijan. This place gathered a large number of local young men. Soon students began to promote pro-Turkish propaganda outside the school. The madrasah’s best students continued their education in Turkey.
In the late 2000s, graduated students founded several pro-Turkish youth organizations in Georgia, such as Huzur, the Georgian Muslim Society, and the Georgian Youth Education and Assistance Society. The head of the Georgian-Turkish Friendship Association, Emin Shekherji, supervised these organizations’ activities. For a long time, he led the madrasah in Meore Kesalo, being an agent of influence for the Turkish special services.
Over the past years, these youth organizations have significantly increased their amount of members and gained authority among the local population. Charity and large-scale assistance to poor families during religious holidays hugely contributed to this.
Russian analysts say that Turkey can over take the Adjara/Batum region of Georgia. Ankara massively increased in recent years its cultural and political influence. https://t.co/bzNTlmBmx2
— Ali Özkök (@Ozkok_A) June 23, 2019
Since their foundations, Huzur and the Muslim Society of Georgia have been actively involved in the social, religious, and humanitarian processes conducted by Turkish missionaries in Georgia. Members of these Muslim communities were taught Turkish, Georgian, and English, computer literacy, and religion.
In recent years, the Georgian Youth Education and Assistance Society has conducted preparatory courses for applicants who want to continue their studies at Turkish universities. The Turkish Embassy actively supports this aspiration. The organization also issued a magazine, the Ugur, dedicated to religious propaganda and engagement of Georgian youth to pro-Turkish organizations.
In addition, the Turks showed great interest in land resources and actively bought up Georgia’s agricultural land. However, at the end of 2018, Georgia’s authorities introduced a ban on the ownership of Georgian land by foreigners.
Georgia: Key Area for Turkey
Islamization and Turkification of Georgia’s society are becoming more and more evident. The Georgian leadership is just observing these processes while the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service must take countermeasures against foreign states initiating the gradual Islamization of the southern regions. Meanwhile, Georgians criticize the activities of security agencies and their leadership.
Considering the necessity for protection of sovereignty and cultural values, the U.S. needs to pay more attention to Turkish-Georgian relations. Inaction by Washington may allow Ankara to expand its ambitions in Eurasia further, promote Islamic values, and violate the cultural borders of countries.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.