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Georgia: Hopeful President Pays First Official Visit To Turkey

Mikheil Saakashvili Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has started his first official visit to Turkey with a clear aim toward strengthening economic and military ties with a strategic NATO member that has been traditionally keen to play a major role in the post-Soviet South Caucasus region. Saakashvili hopes his visit, which comes just weeks after he reasserted his authority over the Black Sea province of Adjara, will pave the way for greater Turkish participation in reviving his country's ailing economy.

Prague, 20 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Mikheil Saakashvili began his visit today by meeting his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, at the Cankaya presidential palace in Ankara.

The Georgian leader will not be able to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is on a visit to Romania. Instead, he will hold talks with Erdogan's deputy, Abdullah Gul, who is also Turkey's foreign minister. Saakashvili is also scheduled to meet the head of the Turkish Army General Staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, and parliament speaker Bulent Arinc. Tomorrow, the Georgian delegation will proceed to Istanbul for talks with Turkish businessmen, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, and members of Turkey's Georgian-speaking community.

Some 50 entrepreneurs, lawmakers, and cabinet members are traveling with Saakashvili -- including Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze, and Energy Minister Nika Gilauri.

Talking to journalists before leaving Tbilisi, Baramidze said that, as the size of the delegation indicates, the Georgian government attaches great significance to that visit. "This visit is of great importance to Georgia. Turkey is not only our neighbor, it is also our partner in a great number of fields which are very important to Georgia, from defense, security, and law enforcement to agriculture and energy," he said. "We will naturally hold concrete discussions along these lines. Talks will also include Georgia's accession bid to NATO and the European Union."
One of Saakashvili's first diplomatic moves after his election in January was to dispatch an envoy to Ankara to reassure Turkish decisionmakers of his commitment to the BTC pipeline.

Economic cooperation between Ankara and Tbilisi began under the previous Georgian administration of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Both countries have also long been engaged in joint defense projects in which Ankara provides equipment and training for Georgian armed forces. Turkey has also contributed to renovating military facilities on Georgian territory that have been vacated by Russian troops in recent years. Georgia and Turkey have traditionally conducted joint military exercises along their common border and, on 9 February, they agreed to boost naval cooperation in the Black Sea waterways.

Bezhuashvili today said both sides would discuss ways to enhance bilateral defense links. "Turkey is our neighbor. It is our strategic partner in all fields, including the defense sector. We're engaged in an intensive [military] cooperation with Turkey. I, personally, will have no separate meetings [with Turkish defense officials]. But President [Saakashvili] will hold talks with the chief of the Turkish Army General Staff. They will discuss plans for this year and next year. This will be is a continuation of the programs that already exist," he said.

In separate comments made to Agence France Presse, Bezhuashvili said both sides would also assess peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, where Georgian troops have been serving under Turkish command since 1999.

Major joint economic ventures include transit through Georgian territory of Azerbaijani crude oil and natural gas meant for Turkish and Western markets. A U.S.-sponsored oil pipeline linking the Azerbaijani capital Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan through Tbilisi is due to be inaugurated next year. It should be coupled in 2006 with a natural-gas pipeline stretching between Baku, Tbilisi, and Turkey's eastern Anatolian city of Erzurum.

Giorgi Chanturia, who chairs Georgia's International Oil Corporation, reported on 12 May that work on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline is ahead of schedule and that Tbilisi is expecting to complete its part of the project by November. Chanturia's comments were obviously meant to allay Turkish concerns over recent political developments in Georgia.

Ankara's invitation to visit was originally extended to then-President Shevardnadze in September of last year. But before both sides could agree on a date, Saakashvili and other opposition leaders had forced the veteran South Caucasus leader out of office amid a controversy sparked by controversial parliamentary polls.

One of Saakashvili's first diplomatic moves after his election in January was to dispatch an envoy to Ankara to reassure Turkish decisionmakers of his commitment to the BTC pipeline.

Turkey sees stability in Georgia as key to its economic and political ambitions in the South Caucasus region.

Sezer today urged the Georgian leadership to solve its territorial disputes with Abkhazia and South Ossetia peacefully, cautioning that a heavy-handed approach could destabilize the entire South Caucasus region. Ankara had expressed similar concerns during the recent crisis that pitted Georgia's central authorities against Aslan Abashidze, the leader of the autonomous republic of Adjara.

Turkish media say that although Saakashvili's visit had been considered for quite some time, it could not take place earlier because of the Adjara standoff. The Georgian president, who had been engaged in a bitter sovereignty dispute with Adjara's ruler, reasserted control over that Black Sea province just two weeks ago (6 May) after Russia helped him secure Abashidze's departure.

Saakashvili today thanked Turkey for playing an "important and constructive" role during the crisis. He did not elaborate on the nature of Ankara's contribution. In remarks carried by Turkey's Anadolu news agency yesterday, the Georgian president said that with the Adjara crisis now over, priority should be given to boosting Turkish investments in the province.

Koba Khabazi, a pro-government Adjar lawmaker who is part of the Georgian delegation, today said both sides would discuss ways to lure Turkish capital into the Black Sea coastal region. "One of the main issues to be discussed is how to create favorable conditions for [Turkish] investments in Adjara. We must put an end to this harmful tradition of the past when Aslan Abashidze was getting a share of every single investment that was made in Adjara. The investment climate must be free and every one should be granted the opportunity to make significant investments [in the region]." Khabazi said.

Saakashvili today said the change of leadership in Adjara had removed the "last obstacle" that was preventing full economic cooperation between Turkey and Georgia. Also today, Georgian authorities announced that a new official has been named to supervise customs operations on the Adjar section of the Turkish-Georgian land border. The move is being presented as part of Saakashvili's steps to eradicate corruption from Georgian state structures.

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