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Turkish minorities caught up in the Ukraine whirlwind

Turkey is seen as an economic and strategic power in the neighborhood primarily by parties seeking a counterbalance to Moscow

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

As the crisis in the Balkans deepens, more ethnic minorities feel themselves threatened. The recent clashes between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces have taken a toll on not only the Tatar Turks in Crimea but also some 18,000 Meskhetian/Ahiska Turks living in the region. With the increasing violence on the streets of many Ukrainian cities, Meskhetian Turks have called on Turkey for help. Turkey has a responsibility to provide diplomatic solutions for the Turkic minorities, who have been caught up in the Russia-Ukraine whirlwind.

While the Caucasus is stuck between Brussels and Moscow, Turkey is keeping its feet in both camps. Turkey is seen as an economic and strategic power in the neighborhood primarily by parties seeking a counterbalance to Moscow. Brussels’ demands for democracy without a clearly articulated prospect for meaningful integration leaves a vacuum for Turkey to fill. Ankara’s soft power has flourished in countries that are seeking to curb Russia’s economic and strategic hold, yet are also challenged by Brussels’ conditionality for European integration.

Who are the Meskhetian Turks?

On Nov. 14, 1944, the Meskhetian Turks were forcibly evicted from Georgia by the USSR. The supposition was that the Soviet Union planned to attack Turkey, and the Meskhets might side with the latter; Stalin also wanted to purge Georgia of Muslims. Within 24 hours, over 100,000 Meskhetian Turks were forced from their homes, herded into wagons meant for livestock, and exiled to the deserts and steppes of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Along the way and over the first four months some 20,000 died. Since the Meskhetian Turks weren't allowed to return to their homeland, they continued living in Central Asia, primarily in Uzbekistan. This was the case until June of 1989, when a horrific mass murder of the Meskhetian Turks took place in the Fergana Valley; before the massacre, about 100,000 Meskhetians lived in Uzbekistan, now fewer than 20,000 remain.

The problem of the Meskhetian Turks today

Pasha Alihan, the Chairman of the Foundation for the Protection of the Rights of Exiled Meskhetian Turks, called Mustafa, a Meskheti Turk living in the Slavyanks town of Ukraine during a press conference he held. Mustafa said that they were facing pressure both from the Pro-Russians and Pro-Ukranians and called for the help of Turkey. Mustafa said, “They shut themselves in their homes; they can’t even go out to shopping. In the villages, no one goes out even for their most basic needs because as soon as you step out, there are snipers firing at you. They don't know where to go. Ukraine tells them to stay with Ukraine, while pro-Russians want them to side with Russia. Men younger than 40 are being drafted by both the Ukrainian forces and the pro-Russian groups and if anyone rejects, they are threatened. The only thing Meskhetian Turks want is to live in peace.”

What do the Meskhetian Turks want?

Regarding this news, I reached and interviewed the Vice President and European representative of the World Meskhetian Turks Association, Burhan Özkoşar, who resides in France. He highlighted that the problems Meskhetian Turks are facing in Ukraine right now has been among the agenda topics in the European Parliamentarian Assembly recently. Özkoşar said the Meskhetian society wish to either go back to their lands in Georgia or be brought to Turkey to elevate their living conditions and have dual citizenship in both Georgia and Turkey. Differences of language and customs make finding jobs difficult for the majority of Meskhetians and especially in the Russian territories, they are still technically considered refugees and therefore their children cannot be enrolled in schools.

How can Turkey help?

On a strategic level, Turkey is contributing to the European integration of the Caucasus, most notably with the pipeline, railway, and logistics centers that plug Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey into continental Europe.

Turkey is seen as an economic and strategic power in the neighborhood primarily by parties seeking a counterbalance to Moscow.

Ceylan Ozbudak

On the other hand, Turkey’s increasing official development aid and cultural outreach largely focuses on “relatives” abroad — people with kinship, linguistic, and religious links to Turkey, including the Muslim minorities and the Abkhaz of Georgia, Turkic-speaking Moldovans, Meskhetian Turks and Crimea’s Tatars.

In this regard, Turkey has soft power with its “relatives”.

On the Russian front, with the construction of the 1,200 km long Blue Stream natural gas pipeline, competition in Central Asia is no longer on the agenda for Russia and Turkey. The Black Sea and the Turkish Straits have now become a topic of cooperation with Russia when Turkey resisted U.S. and NATO efforts to establish a presence in the Black Sea region. The 2008 Georgian-Russian conflict was the point when the Russians began to trust the Turks since Turkey took a “neutral” attitude by not letting in American warships. Creating a historic opportunity on the diplomacy table, the semi-rival tones of rivalry in Turkish-Russian relations of the past have been replaced by pragmatic dealings between the two countries over the course of the last decade. Russia seems to want to keep Turkey a closer ally in the process of building the Istanbul Canal, which will have a direct effect on the security in the Black Sea region.

In response to the conflicting environment surrounding the Black Sea, Turkey has sought to “develop stability, confidence and cooperation,” through a proposed Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact (CSCP). Bringing together the three South Caucasus states along with Russia and Turkey, the CSCP was designed as a platform for addressing the region’s continued fragmentation and ensuring the security of energy transit to Turkey. Though the CSCP, Turkey emerged as a mediator in the region; since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Turkey has continued to balance its dependence on Russia with its interest in expanded transit through the Caucasus. Following the imposition of a Russian embargo ahead of that war, Turkey became - and remains to this day - Georgia’s largest trading partner. At the same time, it has been the only NATO member to formally engage the separatist regimes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, including sponsoring official visits. Turkey is also Abkhazia’s largest trade partner apart from Russia.

With this diplomatic upper hand in the Caucasus, Turkey is now in a position to offer genuine and workable solutions for the Turkic minorities in the region. If the communities come under further pressure from the growing conflict, Ankara will doubtlessly feel obliged to play its cards since the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Abkhazia continue to be aligned with the mediation and trade partnership of Turkey as a focal point. Therefore, we can likely look forward to the growing strategic power of Turkey in the Caucasus and Black Sea region – not as a power with imperial aspirations, but as a conciliator and peacemaker working to solve problems to the benefit of all concerned.

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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. As a representative of Harun Yahya organization, she frequently cites quotations from the author in her writings. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.