ISTANBUL, Turkey — With attention focused on Ukraine, whose president prompted mass protests with his last-minute decision to abandon plans for European integration last month, developments in other former Soviet countries have been less visible.
Among them, Georgia initialed an Association Agreement with the EU in late November, quietly nearing the finish line in what’s been perhaps the most dramatic story of geopolitical wrangling between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Unlike Armenia and Ukraine, where Russian pressure appears to have forced decisions to walk away from similar EU deals, analysts say Moscow’s bullying in Georgia merely repelled it.
But in addition to the EU, Georgia is also looking toward another neighbor: Turkey, with which relations have recently warmed despite historic enmities.
Michael Cecire, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute calls Georgia’s rapprochement not only with Turkey, but also Azerbaijan in recent years “a potential game changer” for the Caucasus Mountains region.
He says a raft of agreements the three counties recently signed are “arguably more comprehensive and concrete” than the package of free-trade and political integration treaties that comprise the EU Association Agreement.
Georgia — whose population is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian — is already linked to its two largely Muslim neighbors by important energy pipelines that provide Europe with an alternative to Russian natural gas. A new gas pipeline and railway linking Europe to Asia will soon come online through the same route.
Georgians can now travel to Turkey without passports, while the countries have signed an array of agreements to simplify trade and boost defense cooperation. They mark important stepping stones away from Russia and toward integration into the European space, Cecire says.
Those developments have flown under the radar because “no one quite knows how to talk about that right now,” says Lincoln Mitchell, a professor at Columbia University and author of two books about Georgia.
“From the Western perspective, Turkey is a very confusing country,” he says. “On the one hand, it’s been a NATO member for a long time and it’s a very powerful regional player with a strong economy. But it’s out of our framework of thinking about powerful countries” because the Washington vs. Moscow dynamic is more dramatic.
The emerging regional bloc has received little press also because the countries have sought to “tread carefully” rather than further complicate their relationships with Moscow, Cecire says.
“Turkey and Azerbaijan maintain important, serviceable relationships with Russia, and Georgia is trying to achieve its own détente,” he says. “None want to lend the impression that trilateralism is an anti-Russia bloc, though this unintended implication may be unavoidable.”
Georgia first became a Russian protectorate in 1783 and, although independent since 1991, the country of 4.5 million people continued to rely on Moscow for the majority of its trade and as a destination for emigrants seeking work into the 2000s.
The countries’ shared Orthodox Christian identity in a largely Muslim neighborhood helped to develop strong cultural bonds between the two, but the relationship was irrevocably changed after Georgia elected a pro-Western government in 2004, which put it on a crash course with an increasingly assertive Kremlin under President Vladimir Putin.
As relations deteriorated, Russia placed an embargo on Georgian products in 2006 and blocked visas for Georgian citizens before the two fought a brief war over a Georgian secessionist province in 2008 that killed hundreds and caused massive damage to Georgia’s economy as well as its prospects for integrating into the Euro-Atlantic community.
Rather than deter Georgia from strengthening ties with Western organizations, however, Russia’s behavior further motivated Georgia’s public and politicians to “go West,” says Koba Turmanidze, president of the Caucasus Resource Research Councils (CRRC) Georgia, which conducts surveys in the country.
“The key issue is the lack of alternatives,” he says. “You know for sure that Russia, your big neighbor, is basically attacking you whatever happens and there is nothing that can protect you from that except these hypothetical memberships,” he says, referring to Georgia’s eventual ascension to the EU and NATO.
Polls show public support for NATO and EU membership has remained steady at 60 percent and above since CRRC Georgia began asking the question five years ago. But although full-fledged membership may be a long way off, dropping barriers with Turkey could help open the bridge to Europe.
Still, while Azerbaijan and Turkey have become Georgia’s top trade partners and two of its largest sources of investment and visitors, it’s not clear whether the government’s drive to embrace a new axis with its Turkic and majority Muslim neighbors can overcome nationalistic sentiments and lingering historic suspicions.
“Our history textbooks are built on this hostility towards the Ottoman and Persian Empires,” Turmanidze says. “As I was taught in Soviet times, you could not imagine a greater enemy state than Iran or Turkey because every class was about how they partitioned Georgia, how they killed that many, how they resettled that valley and this and that.”
In 2012, just 20 percent of Georgians said they would approve of a Georgian woman marrying a Turk, while the approval rates for Russians and Americans were 47 percent and 35 percent, respectively, according to a CRRC poll.
Georgians respondents also said that they prefer doing business with Russians over Turks by a 19-point margin.
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Many observers fear that Georgia’s influential and increasingly assertive Orthodox Church could attempt to nix both the country’s rapprochement with Turkey and its EU integration. Muslim communities in rural Georgia have suffered frequent harassment in recent years, often by mobs backed by priests, and protests against Turkish and other foreign businesses have become more frequent.
EU officials strongly criticized Georgia in May, when police did little to prevent a 30,000-strong group of priests and protesters from violently dispersing an anti-homophobia demonstration, leading to dozens of injuries.
Turmanidze says that the Georgian Orthodox Church is by far the most trusted and influential institution in the country and it has been making its presence felt on secular matters both behind closed doors and, increasingly, in public discussions.
Earlier this month, the Church leader, Patriarch Ilia II, said that a bill that would create direct mayoral elections in 17 towns would cause “Georgia’s disintegration.” Days later, the government revised the bill, significantly watering down its decentralization plans.
The statement on the decentralization reform was unprecedented in its firmness and its distance from core social and moral issues, said a long-time Georgia watcher who asked not to be named. Many in the NGO community, now worry that Church’s range of core issues could move from “mayors today to EU integration tomorrow.”