Wikileaks cable: Turkish Caucasians' Influence on Regional Policy

Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
08ANKARA1635 2008-09-11 14:25 2011-08-30 01:44 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Ankara

DE RUEHAK #1635/01 2551425
P 111425Z SEP 08


C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 ANKARA 001635



E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/08/2018


Classified By: POL Counselor Daniel O'Grady, reasons 1.4 (b,d)

1. (C) SUMMARY AND COMMENT:  The conflict in Georgia has mobilized a large portion of Turkey's ethnic Caucasian community to lobby Ankara to join Moscow in recognizing Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence.  As during the Chechen wars of the 1990s, ethnic Caucasian groups will force the GOT to walk a fine line between supporting the territorial integrity of a neighbor, in this case Georgia, and engaging breakaway regions with which a large number of Turks feel strong cultural and historical bonds.  Turkish Caucasians are divided between "North Caucasian," or "Circassian," groups, e.g., Abkhaz, Chechen, Ossetian, and "South Caucasian," or "Georgian," groups -- segments once allied in their anti-Soviet and then anti-Russian orientation.  The Circassian lobby is organized and politically active, though weakened somewhat by growing rifts between Circassian groups that fear Russia's long-term intentions to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and those that favor greater cooperation with Russia, largely for business reasons.  In contrast, Turkey's ethnic Georgians have struggled to constitute an effective lobby.  Mostly from the Ajara region of Georgia, and fewer in number than the Circassians, Turkey's Georgians are defined more by their Muslim identity than their ethnicity.  They complain about Georgian President Saakashvili encroaching upon Ajaran autonomy.  As a result, most, but not all, Turkish Georgians have limited sympathy for Saakashvili, even as they voice their solidarity with the Georgian people.

2. (C) SUMMARY AND COMMENT CONT'D:  Despite pressure from Turkish Circassians, the GOT will not break from its Western allies to recognize Abkhaz or South Ossetian independence. GOT support for Georgia's territorial integrity is strong and based on self-interest:  adherence to the principle of territorial integrity underscores Turkey's own political unity.  Moreover, it is in Turkey's interest to support a strong, united Georgia if Turkey is to avoid one day bordering Russia directly -- a centuries-old experience it does not wish to relive.  Under pressure from Turkish Circassians and wishing to forestall a formal annexation of Abkhazia by Russia (effectively doubling Russia's Black Sea coastline), the GOT may seek to engage Abkhazia more robustly in the months and years ahead through trade and investment, transportation links, and unofficial contacts with the de facto government in Sukhumi.  Ankara will likely seek to persuade Tbilisi of the wisdom of this approach, but may prove undeterred if Tbilisi continues to oppose such measures, as it did, to Ankara's regret, before this latest conflict.  END SUMMARY AND COMMENT.

3. (SBU) Estimates of the Caucasian population in Turkey vary but range to as high as seven million.  Apart from Turkey's recognized Armenian, Greek and Jewish minorities, Turkish censuses do not investigate ethnicity, making an accurate count difficult.  However, TOBB University International Relations Department Professor and Caucasus expert Mitat Celikpala, in his paper, "From Immigrants to Diaspora: Influence of the North Caucasian Diaspora in Turkey," notes that in the 1965 census, Turks were asked about their primary or secondary language.  About 119,000 (four percent of the population at the time) responded Abkhazian or related North Caucasian languages -- an impressive amount given that the majority of immigration from that region to Turkey took place in the mid-to-late 19th century.  A smaller number of respondents indicated they spoke Georgian.  Based on those responses, and recognizing that a majority of Circassian Turks would have integrated and lost the ability to speak their native languages by 1965, Celikpala estimates the Turkish Caucasian population today to be about 3.5 million, but the extent to which these peoples self-identify as Caucasian (or Abkhaz or Ossetian or Georgian) varies.  In contrast to the Armenian diaspora in the United States, for example, the Turkish Caucasian diaspora is far more diffuse.

4. (U) Turkish Caucasians are divided into two main groups: North Caucasian and South Caucasian.  North Caucasians descend from the Caucasian territories of present-day Russia, i.e., Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingusetia etc., as well as from

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Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  This group is commonly known in Turkey as Circassian, and the largest sub-group among the Circassians are the Abkhaz.  (Ossetians are known in Turkey as Kusha and constitute a far smaller community.)  In the Turkish context, South Caucasian generally refers to Georgians and related ethnicities, such as Laz and Mingrelian.  (Other South Caucasians in Turkey are distinct: Armenians are a recognized minority and Azeris linguistically and ethnically are Turkic.)

5. (SBU) Turkish Circassians' ancestors were forced to leave their North Caucasian homelands as Russia completed the annexation of the region in the second half of the 19th century.  Celikpala estimates that over 1.5 million emigrated -- about 90 percent of the North Caucasian population at the time.  They settled largely in the Ottoman Empire, in present day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Balkans, but mostly in Anatolia.  A second, smaller wave of emigration to Turkey took place in 1918, as the Bolsheviks re-consolidated Russian power in the region.  Finally, the GOT permitted about 600 North Caucasian legionnaires to settle in Turkey after World War II.  Circassians in Anatolia settled primarily in the Marmara region around Adapazari, moving to villages based on their respective sub-identity, i.e., Abkhaz, Ossetian, etc., though these sub-groups, as well as the Georgians who came to live among them, interacted and intermarried.  Anatolia's rural isolation helped ensure that Circassian culture and language persevered well into the 20th century.

6. (SBU) Turkish Circassians quickly gained a reputation for loyalty to their new country, and are still known today for their nationalistic character (as are Georgians).  Yet they retained a strong Circassian cultural identity which they channeled into political activism against Russian "occupation" in the Caucasus.  However, the need for the new Turkish Republic to cooperate with the Bolshevik regime in the early days of Turkish independence, and the subsequent pan-Turkism introduced by Ataturk as a key element of Turkish nation building, curbed Circassian political activism until the outset of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union became defined as an enemy of Turkey.  With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkish Circassians, with the tacit approval of Ankara, emerged as a key support base for Chechen separatists in their 1990s wars against Russia, much to the annoyance of Moscow.  Turkey's overall support for the Chechen insurgency faded, however, as the insurgency became associated increasingly with terrorism.  Chechnya remains, nonetheless, a passionate issue for many Turkish Circassians.

7. (C) Numerous groups are active in the Circassian lobby today, but two stand out:  The Caucasus Association (KAF-DER) and the Caucasus Abkhazia Solidarity Committee (KADK). KAF-DER ( is led by Cihan Candemir, board member of Turkish construction giant Yuksel Insaat.  KADK (, and a related, ad-hoc group known as the "Friends of Abkhazia," are led by Irfan Argun.  The Istanbul-based Caucasus Foundation ( is instrumental in fundraising for Caucasus causes.  KADK could be described as Abkhazia's unofficial representation in Turkey, though both Argun and Candemir maintain close ties to Sukhumi, in particular with one Turkish-born Abkhaz "parliamentarian," Sener Gogua, who visits Turkey frequently and told us he coordinates diaspora affairs for "President" Bagapsh (reftel).  KADK and KAF-DER are both members of the Federation for Caucasus Associations (, an umbrella organization for Circassian NGOSs, also led by Candemir.  But Argun and Candemir do not see eye-to-eye completely.  KADK, Celikpala explained, welcomed Russia's recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence, but is concerned about Russian annexation of Abkhazia (South Ossetia increasingly being seen as a lost cause).  Argun's allies continue to advocate for the rights of Caucasians in Russia proper, including Chechens.  (KADK shares roots with the Caucasian-Chechen Solidarity Committee, which played a similar role in Turkey vis a vis Chechnya.)  Candemir pays lip service to the same concerns about Russia, but has reportedly developed close ties to the Russian Embassy in Ankara and thus more reticent to criticize Moscow.  Yuksel Insaat has extensive business interests throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union; Candemir has, according to Celikpala, used his KAF-DER and Federation leadership to cultivate ties on behalf of his company.  The upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games promise to be a boon for Yuksel and other leading Turkish construction firms.  (NOTE: Turkish MFA estimates that Turkish construction contracts in Russia are worth $30 billion; $6 billion having been added last year alone.  END NOTE.)

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¶8.  (SBU) Turkish Georgians are primarily of Ajaran descent. Being Muslim, they moved to or preferred to stay in Turkey when the Soviet Union and Turkey formally delimited their border in 1921.  Some Turks descending from Georgia claim an Ahiska Turkish identity, allowing them to more easily assimilate within Turkish society as Turks.  (NOTE:  The Ahiska or Meskhetian Turks are ethnic Turks from present-day Georgia who were deported by Stalin to Central Asia and are now campaigning, with Ankara's support, for the right to return to their homeland.  END NOTE.)

9. (C) Georgian cultural identity is weaker (and Islamic identity stronger) than for Circassians, and Georgians are less active politically.  While not activists, Bilkent University Professor Hasan Ali Karasar points out that Georgians have retained important economic and political influence in Turkey, primarily in the Black Sea region, but also in Ankara (the Forest Ministry, for example, is historically led by a Georgian, Karasar told us) and Istanbul, where many have emigrated.  A number of key political leaders, including PM Erdogan and nationalist Republican People's Party (CHP) Chairman Deniz Baykal are reported to be of Georgian descent, though it is unclear how much, if at all, they are influenced by their heritage; neither would welcome any non-Turkish definitions of their identity.  The Turkey-Georgia Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group has twenty members representing all three main parties in Parliament.

10. (C) Turkish Georgians retain strong ties to Batumi, viewing the eastern Black Sea region and Ajara as an integrated whole.  Turkish Georgians have invested greatly in Batumi and welcome GOT efforts to promote regional economic integration with Georgia.  But they have complained about Tbilisi's alleged efforts to curtail Ajaran autonomy, of which Turkey is a legal guarantor, they argue.  They also complain about Georgian chauvinism.  Turkish Georgians criticized, for example, the decision to insert a Georgian cross in the Ajaran flag following Saakashvili's successful efforts to consolidate Ajara within Georgia (sending then-Ajaran leader Abashidze fleeing via Trabzon).  Maps of "Greater Georgia" that occasionally emerge from Georgia showing the Eastern Turkish province of Artvin as part of Georgia raise eyebrows here.  Turkish Georgians are also watching closely for Tbilisi's support for the repatriation of the Ahiska Turks.

11. (C) While Saakashvili has not helped himself with Turkish Georgians through his actions in Ajara, Tbilisi has cultivated useful ties with some Turkish Georgian groups. The oldest and principle Turkish-Georgian language newspaper in Turkey, "Chveneburi," ( is decidedly pro-Saakashvili in its coverage.  Acar Insaat, a large Turkish construction firm, has close connections with the Saakashvili administration, according to Celikpala.  A number of other large holding groups in Turkey are run by ethnic Georgians, including the Carmikli and Ozaltin groups, and also maintain ties with Tbilisi.  In the 1990s, with GOG support, Turkish and Georgian businessmen founded the Turkish-Georgian Cultural and Solidarity Foundation in an effort to balance the Abkhaz/Circassian lobby.  Additional foundations and associations were created, but have never competed effectively with the Circassians.  But the Russian invasion of Georgia prompted, according to Karasar, the first-ever street protests organized by Turkish Georgians, in Ankara and Istanbul.  This may signal greater Georgian political activism in the future, but it will be difficult
for Georgians to overcome their dislike for Saakashvili, even as they express their solidarity with the Georgian people. Turkish Georgians' cultural awareness has been enhanced in recent years through efforts by the Georgian Embassy in Ankara and local governments in northeastern Turkey to promote Turkey's Georgian heritage, including hundreds of churches, as a tourist attraction.

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12. (C) Turkey will not break ranks with its Western allies to recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia.  Circassian voters are an important nationalist vote base, but as nationalist National Action Party (MHP) Vice Chairman Vural Oktay told us, "Turkey comes first."  While pragmatic on Kosovo (a testament to the strength of ethnic lobbies in Turkey; Kosovar Turks campaigned strongly for Kosovo's independence), adherence to the principle of territorial integrity underscores Turkey's own political unity, namely with regards to the Kurdish question, ensuring Turkey acts carefully.  The Turks will also not wish to take any action that destabilizes Georgia.  Georgia is a buffer between Russia and Turkey; the Turks have no interest in once again bordering Russia, with whom they fought 13 wars over the centuries.

13. (C) At the same time, the GOT will be under considerable pressure from the Circassian lobby.  While diffuse and factionalized, the lobby includes a number of well-placed, influential businesspeople and former high-level bureaucrats who will urge the GOT to alter its policy of non-engagement with Abkhazia.  These groups have argued that Turkey's "unilateral," pro-Tbilisi policies have ignored the plight of peoples living in the region, re-subjecting them to Russian domination.  Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies (ASAM) Senior Researcher Hasan Kanbolat underscored the Turkish Circassian view that Abkhazia desires a Western orientation and that Turkish engagement with Abkhazia (if not recognition) is essential to forestalling Russian annexation of Abkhazia.  At the urging of Tbilisi, Ankara has avoided direct engagement with Sukhumi, leaning on Circassian NGOs to cancel two "unofficial" visits by Bagapsh (though a visit by "FM" Shamba took place  in June 2008) and holding back its proposal to link Sukhumi to Trabzon by ferry.  The GOT has long complained to us privately about Georgia's opposition to even limited engagement with Abkhazia and may no longer be persuaded by the Georgian argument that any unofficial engagement would constitute de facto recognition.  As we have learned through our contacts with Turkish Circassian groups, some Turkish businessmen are already traveling to and planning to invest in Abkhazia.

14. (SBU) Criticism of Turkish "unilateral" policy in the Caucasus has resonated beyond the Circassian lobby.  As evidenced by public support for Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, Turks favor dialogue as a means to solve problems.  Turkish analysts have argued that Turkey has wasted opportunities to prevent this latest conflict by not exercising its historic and cultural linkages with the peoples of the Caucasus.  Karasar, for example, has argued that, in addition to normalizing relations with Armenia, Turkey should seek dialogue with all parties in the region. It should channel humanitarian aid to the separatist enclaves of Georgia while investing heavily in Georgia's reconstruction.  It should accept refugees from Georgia's war-torn regions, and establish direct economic relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including establishing a flight between Sukhumi and Istanbul.  He further advises that Turkey expand existing scholarship programs for Caucasians from across the region with an eye to shaping the region's democratic future.  Karasar has endorsed Turkey's Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform concept, but predicts the platform will fail if it does not offer a seat at the table to all peoples represented in conflict areas, including Abkhazians, Ossetians, and even Nagorno-Karabakhians.

15. (C) The extent to which Russia would support enhanced Turkish engagement with Abkhazia and other separatist enclaves in the Caucasus is unclear.  The GOT believes Russians harbor lingering historical doubts about Turkey's intentions in the Caucasus and Central Asia and will be wary to lose influence to pro-Western, NATO-member Turkey.  In the meantime, Russia will likely continue playing the Circassian card to foster division between Turkey and Georgia and seek to exploit the sympathies most Turks have for the Abkhaz in the conflict with Georgia.  Russia witnessed first hand Circassian influence in Turkey during the 1990s when Turkey tacitly sided with the Chechens in their separatist war against Russia, making "unofficial" contacts with Chechen leaders, allowing the Chechens to establish unofficial representation in Istanbul, permitting Chechen insurgents to move freely within Turkey, and funneling humanitarian aid to Chechnya over Russian complaints the aid was cover for weapons shipments.  In 1991, four Chechens, including Shamil Basayev, hijacked a Russian plane and flew it to Ankara to highlight their cause.  The Turks refused the hijackers a press conference, but allowed them to return to Chechnya despite Russian demands for their arrest.  Overall Turkish support for the Chechen cause waned eventually as the insurgency became increasingly associated with terrorism; Abkhazia is now the cause celebre for Turkish Circassians.

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¶16. (C) Turkish Circassians point to Turkey's recognition of an independent "TRNC" as justification for Turkish recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russians too have invoked northern Cyprus as a precedent.  Russia argued the West paved the way for widespread recognition of the "TRNC" by recognizing Kosovo's independence.  Later, Russia's Ambassador in Ankara reportedly proposed a convenient quid-pro-quo to Turkey, suggesting Russian "TRNC" recognition in exchange for Turkish recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  The Turks have not accepted this thinking, and do not trust Russia on Cyprus.  Moscow is perceived in Ankara as pro-Greek Cypriot, whereas Moscow has traditionally viewed the "TRNC" as a base of support for Caucasian separatism. (NOTE:  Then-Chechen "President" Dudayev held the "TRNC" up as a model for Chechnya during his first "official" visit abroad to Turkey and the "TRNC" in 1992, where he met with then-"TRNC" "President" Denktash.  END NOTE.)  Turkey, despite its recognition of the "TRNC," supports the reunification of Cyprus as a bicommunal federation.  Turkey has urged the international community to end the isolation of northern Cypriots but has never lobbied the international community strongly on formal "TRNC" recognition.

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