Interview | Turkish Ambassador on Bilateral Ties with Georgia, Namakhvani HPP

Thousands have been protesting in the western city of Kutaisi and the Rioni River Valley against the construction of the nearby Namakhvani Hydropower Plant for months now. The project encompasses two separate HPPs of 333 MW and 100 MW on the Rioni River. The Government of Georgia hopes to enhance its energy security and to employ up to 1,600 Georgians with the “foreign direct investment in the amount of USD 800 million.” The activists, CSOs, and locals against the project, on the other hand, cite the seismic and other natural disaster risks, potential environmental damage, the contractual conditions that allow the investor to confiscate private property and utilize natural resources, and extensive right to seek the government compensation for damages, as some of their key concerns.

ENKA Renewables, a company that holds a contract to construct the HPP, operates with 90% of the shares belonging to the Turkish ENKA Insaat ve Sanayi A.S and 10% to the Norwegian Clean Energy Group. In a new turn of events, locals against the project, and Tbilisi-based activists backing them, recently criticized Turkish Ambassador to Georgia, Fatma Ceren Yazgan for her defense of the project and critical remarks against the Namakhvani protests.

Civil Georgia approached Ambassador Yazgan to reflect on the recent controversy, the Namakhvani HPP, and Turkish-Georgian relations:

You Excellency, we are speaking on the eve of 9 April, the 30th anniversary of the restoration of Georgia’s independence. Many Georgians recall that Turkey’s political and economic assistance was vital for their individual survival in those early years. In your mind, what would be the crucial element that has changed and that has stayed the same in those 30 years?

First, Turkey and Georgia were suffering from the iron curtain in the same way. They were cut off from a border, on the other side of which, pretty much the same people lived the same way. Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast has the same living culture as Georgia does. On the west coast of Turkey, in Istanbul, in Izmir, in Mersin – the city where I grew up – it is pretty much the same culture. We were not a rich country ourselves and when the borders opened, and we met for the first time – not only the Georgians but everybody, including the Azerbaijanis, Armenians, whose links with us had been cut off by the Cold War – we found many similar traits. When that time came the only difference between Turkey and Georgia was that we were living in a relatively freer space (while still having a democratic deficit and problems) while Georgia was coming out of a Soviet party rule. All those economic, political, and social [ties] started without even the governments having a say in that. Georgians went to work in Turkey. Turks, who were in dire need of selling things, came to Georgia. Those Turks with Georgian origins in Artvin, İnegöl, the Adjarians who immigrated a long time ago, all came [to Georgia] to find their relatives. Suddenly it all started, it wasn’t even the governments that planned it.

With the independence of Georgia, immediately afterward, when the state collapsed and the simple security needs were not met our first interest was to help the Georgian state stabilize the street. The governments of Turkey could help – being a NATO member ourselves we had the security. But you are as secure, as safe, as rich as your neighbor is. The European Union is a good example of this idea, you must develop as a whole, you cannot be rich and comfortable if what you have around is poor or unstable. President Demirel particularly was very instrumental in establishing a relationship first with President [Zviad] Gamsakhurdia – then it was again the turmoil – and then with President [Eduard] Shevardnadze.

I have seen many [Georgian] businesses that survived [these times], very intellectually rich businessmen here who had a chance to go to Turkey to start trading. There were good stories, and bad stories, because, the good and the bad and the ugly in Georgia and Turkey are very similar. We have the same profiles.

Georgia has flourished. Georgia now is not what it was in 1992, 1994, or even 1997. You also have suffered from the geopolitical clash. They call it the frozen conflicts – and I call them the occupation of your land and your territorial integrity and therefore, the sovereignty that is being challenged. Azerbaijan had the same issue, Ukraine did not have that issue before, but Moldova had.

Now, what has changed: we have seen Georgia successfully building up its institutions which you need for democracy, building up an economy where you have now a middle class, you have the basic services provided. There are good and bad things, but it is there: you know which hospital you go to, you know that there is a courthouse. There had been throwbacks and [advances] forward –  this is also very similar to Turkey. Institutions are not to be taken for granted, you have to protect them and you have to really cherish them.

Being a small country in a region traditionally beset by regional rivalries, Georgia has appreciated Turkey’s foreign policy under the motto of “zero problems with neighbors.” Now that policy seems to be belonging to the past. What would you say has changed in these decades more, Turkey, or its neighbors? 

“Zero problems with the neighbors” was a motto, as you said… Intentions are good, nobody wants to have a problem-based foreign policy (well, there are some actors who benefit from conflicts and problems, but Turkey has never been one of them). Turkey has never initiated problems and conflicts to gain from them. On the contrary, the Turkish foreign policy has been criticized for being a pro-status quo policy. We seek stability, because of geopolitics. Our geography compels us to live here and do the balancing.

The “zero problems” was a utopic manifestation – because it takes two to tango, so if your neighbor wants to make political gains from a conflict environment, you cannot say “be happy and I will not be causing you any problems, take what you want.” Of course, we defend our rights. And I’m saying this, as we have two particular neighbors building up their domestic and international interests based on the historical issues, they go back to the history and they are very revanchist. When there is a financial crisis in a certain neighbor, suddenly their anti-Turkish feelings and rhetoric in the media increase (this is not Georgia, obviously). It is an EU country and nobody tells them why are you building tensions? Being anti to everything related to Turkey,  creating a fictitious threat, to make yourself an eternal victim, is a policy for some neighbors of Turkey.

So, Turkey’s foreign policy about relations with our neighbors has not changed. I don’t believe in the possibility of having zero problems, with due respect to whoever might have said it. My understanding of foreign policy, particularly with neighbors, is this: you have to have sound, clear, undistorted, and non-manipulated channels, not only from the government to government but society-to-society so that you are able to address and mitigate any issues.

Look at the EU. This is the ultimate model we see in the human history of 2000 years, that there is a political and economic union of different nation-states, it’s a union of interests. Don’t they have conflicts between them? Don’t they have divergent interests? They do. It is about how they address those interests. You don’t have to join the EU to have that same mindset. From the Turkish side, this policy for me is very clear.

This is why we’ve been starting [various formats of cooperation] every now and then. The Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization (BSEC) is seated in Istanbul and we are trying to keep it alive, even though everybody in the organization has issues with each other. Armenia has a seat in Istanbul in BSEC. We try to do this in the Caucasus. We say, let’s come together, [within] this trilateral, quadrilateral format because having those channels of communication devoid of prejudices and manipulations [is important].

For many Georgians, strategic partnership with Turkey has been a way to anchor itself with the Euro-Atlantic space. We have observed with great worry what seems like the fraying of Turkey’s relations with the U.S. – over the purchase of S-400 missile defense – and the European Union – not least because of the tensions in the Aegean Sea. Should Georgians be worried that Turkey is no longer their ally when it comes to relations with the West? And if not, why?

Friendship is a funny word in international relations, but I truly believe that friendship has strong implications; and I think Georgia and Turkey are friends, as much as you can be in international relations. There are Georgian interests overlapping with Turkish interests in this region. Of course, we are not the only channel, the only vehicle for Georgia. This is not a land corridor, this is an idea, norms, and settings and we will only be happy if Georgia goes further into Euro-Atlantic integration. But the Euro-Atlantic integration is about how you work as a state, with your citizens, with your law.

We expect the EU and other allies in NATO to go with the same values and rules. Once you have double standards, it is hard to defend the values. It doesn’t mean the values are wrong, but those who are preaching them should keep up with them.

I worked on counter-terrorism cooperation. If an ally of mine is supporting the terrorist group which itself acknowledges as a terrorist on paper but is still supporting [it], then I will have questions – what makes you different from my enemy?. The double standards we have seen in the past years were lacking of strategic thinking. There had been a certain erosion of trust.

Turkey also had its own course and issues that it has to consider. In this business, as two takes to tango, when you do something wrong in tango it is both of you being responsible. But in certain issues, I find our partners more problematic. I warned my friends – if you don’t want Turks in the EU, because we are Turks, or because we are Muslim, because we are too crowded, going to have too many members in the European Parliament, and you don’t want that, say it, let’s not prolong [uncertainty].

We still [try to] mend fences because the EU needs us, we need the EU. We are part of European history, economy, politics. We are not only the guards who protect them from the refugees, we are not mercenaries to go and fight for them in Africa – our lives also matter as much as anyone’s in that continent. We are part of the Balkans. I have a Bosniak grandmother and another one, Circassian. If Europeans think Turks don’t belong to the Balkans, I would say, excuse me, I am the living proof that I am in Europe.

The EU is a different matter for Georgia: we need to be very realistic and the EU as a political structure should welcome Georgia. Turks still have to get a visa to travel to the EU, Ukrainians don’t, Georgians don’t, Turks have to. Why? There is a feeling of discrimination and unjust treatment that many in Turkey have with the visa issue. Imagine you’re a student and are refused a [Schengen] visa because they say, you probably are suspicious. But then the PKK lives in Lyon. We were very happy and we didn’t make [visa-free regime] an issue when the EU and Georgia, and Ukraine sat down [to establish a visa-free regime]. And we could have been problematic for the EU or Georgia. [But] no, it is good for Georgia. If the [EU] have some Georgians working there illegally, [we say] don’t make it an issue, because that feeling of being in Europe is important for Georgia, as it should be.

In December President Erdogan proposed the idea of the six-country regional cooperation platform (so-called 3+3 platform). Georgia has been less enthusiastic about the idea, as was shown during the meeting of Mr. Zalkaliani with Mr. Çavuşoğlu in Ankara. Georgian Foreign Minister said unless Russia de-occupies the Georgian regions, Tbilisi has no place in the platform. The initiative is coming against the backdrop of the forthcoming prospect for opening in the Nakhichevan, and other corridors, in the aftermath of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. In your observation, is Tbilisi swimming against the currents here?

First of all, definitely, Tbilisi is not swimming against the current, because we are all in this together. Stability and security will help us develop the economy and make use of the human resources we all have in this region. If something goes wrong, it goes wrong for all of us. We understand the Georgian position. Turkey will never let Georgia be alienated from anything: and this not about the EU or U.S [position], it’s about the geostrategic importance of Georgia.

And there also is an emotional element here. You have to understand that in Turkey there are many Georgians and [people with] Abkhaz origin, Karapapaks that immigrated from Kvemo Kartli. A lot of people [in Turkey] feel that Georgia is important and that is not purely geopolitical. There’s the reason why in 1921 Kemal Atatürk accepted the letter of credits from Simon Mdivani, the first ambassador [of the Democratic Republic of Georgia to Turkey]. That letter is 100 years old now. Turkey has chosen Georgia as a friend a long time ago.

Recent protests that accompany the construction of Namakhvani HPP in Western Georgia became a pretext for our meeting. It may sometimes be challenging for an ambassador to simultaneously protect the interests of her state, and the businesspeople from her country. Would you say that, to paraphrase Eisenhower, what is good for ENKA is good for Turkey?

This project is being done for Georgia, [for its] future, it cannot be done against the will of the people of Georgia. This project has nothing to do with Turkey per se. We have enough electricity. Turkey does not need the Georgian energy market.

This project is about Georgia, it cannot be done against the interest of Georgia. If the Georgian people understand what this project means, I believe they will agree. I didn’t pay attention to the details [of the project] until I saw very heavy discriminatory language, an anti-Turkish language coming up. The way the campaign against this project grew, attracted my suspicion.

As I said in my speech, this is not a homogeneous group of people speaking against this project and the narratives are changing all the time. There is a group of people who will be always against hydropower plant stations in Georgia. This is coming even from the Soviet times. Then there is [a group] which says the investment should have not been done by the private sector, but by the government. There are those who talk about environmental issues, or [are against] the sale of land. Then there are those saying that even if there will be a power plant, it should not be done by the Turks. I was just reading today, that somebody in a TV show said, Turkey is planning strategic things in Rioni Valley – and I [wondered] what strategic things in Rioni Valley we might be planning. There is the government’s decision to weigh the environmental or other impacts, and the contract. The government should do the analysis again if they want to.

The narrative I have read says that we should kick out ENKA [because] it is Turkish. This is not Georgian thinking. It is a very open game. Georgia has to buy electricity from its two neighbors, predominantly. With Turkey, Georgia has a seasonal exchange, it buys and then it sells, and also with Azerbaijan. But there is an increase [in consumption] and nobody’s talking about energy market reform in Georgia. I’m also suggesting that Georgian experts must study what the energy sector needs. The reality is that you need more energy.

I have read some leftist politicians, changing narratives quickly, saying something, and then after getting an answer, they go to another narrative. I want to find out what is the bottom line of this discussion. Some of the people say that the Turkish Ambassador is blaming them for being xenophobic, then I read in their Facebook, or in this campaign, that it becomes again about Turkey and how Turkey has designs for Georgia. And I believe [there is] some systemic manipulation of information space in Georgia, and this is not only in Namakhvani. I have seen all these discussions which started a long time ago now coming to the surface. In Adjara, it had been going on for a long while, and I have complained about this formally too. I said, please, as the Government of Georgia, take your precautions, because there are foreign manipulations in your territory, which are targeting Turkish-Georgian relations.

We will continue investing and making steps that the Georgian economy itself will be flourishing. Why should [Turkish companies] come and invest here if they are going to lose money? I’m trying to attract investors here in competition with the other markets, like in the Balkans or in Central Asia, and I’m begging people to come and have a look here. The real Euro-Atlantic integration of Georgia should be with the business, developing your own digital technologies, your own technology for niche industries and you can only do it with electricity. A couple of weeks ago with heavy snowfall on the Turkish side, the transmitting lines [fell], and suddenly Zestaponi, Rustavi factories started to be under stress [after electricity cut]. You need electricity for development.

You observed correctly that Georgia has a long tradition of protests against HPPs. This was the case with Khudoni HPP in the late Soviet years, which then contributed to the national/ist struggle against the Soviet Union. You said part of the protestors are distributing xenophobic narratives, but the local protest leaders have been citing environmental and cultural heritage concerns, the concerns about the company having the right to sell the energy after 15 years elsewhere, about threats of landslides and earthquakes, and these concerns were backed by some scientists as well. You said in one of your recent tweets – albeit on a totally different topic – that the fate of people cannot be decided in the far-away capitals. How would you respond to the locals and their concerns?

This is exactly what I have said in the speech – these concerns should be mitigated, all of them. I went to the company, saying they had to work with the best available environmentalists so that they mitigate any of the concerns. You cannot have a dam without a change in the environment and there will be an impact that you have to weigh. It’s the government and the company that has to weigh it, and I told them: find the best [experts] in the world and give the people an answer on what’s going to happen.

I also found out there were a lot of people in the Valley who support the building of the dam, so it is not that the whole Valley is against it. But the campaign has developed in a way that people who don’t see anything wrong with this dam-building (because they think they are and will be benefitting from it) can’t speak now, because of the pressure. It is not about dividing the people of the Valley, it’s about the whole Valley that should discuss the matter and agree. I said in the video and will repeat [the different case of] Kirnati, Adjara – everyone agreed [on the construction] and there is this one guy who is extorting [money]. The democracy has a limit [when] the single person [is] taking the whole project hostage. How do you build that public interest? And how do you protect investors or the government, or the other people around that region, that this one person using whatever format of manipulation, legal or public, to use the situation for his own interest? This is about democracy. This happens by the way in Turkey too.

I want the company to speak about their environmental arrangements [for] which they are doing research, science. About seismology: I know [Director of the Institute of Earth Sciences at Ilia State University Tea] Godoladze, she is a valued expert, and the company is taking her concerns also into account while developing the designs. The company – they’re not going to build and go away – are hoping to make money out of this, so they need a good design that will be standing against all the possible natural threats that could be calculated. And all that information should be available to people who are seriously concerned about this. But there is too much cacophony in the information space. I even read news about how there are uranium and plutonium in those fields that Turkey has acquired. This is an unbelievable manipulation.

You spoke about new manipulations and narratives that might be coming from outside of Georgia. But the locals, the protest leaders, that have been fiercely against the project, say they have been against the project since the very beginning in 2009, during former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government. Unlike the case in Adjara, in Namakhvani we are speaking about not just that one guy, but the people in nearby villages that might be affected, like the farmers concerned with the fate of Tvishi wine, or others about the sturgeon fish in the Rioni River that may disappear; and then you have people concerned with the landslides…

I asked about the Tvishi issue. The company told me that they brought a French or an Italian expert and they change the project to an extent that it will not affect Tvishi. These all are environmental impacts. Sturgeon – then I’m trying to find out if there is irreparable damage, which is reported. If you are a big environmental organization, you must have an expert, a report, something [more than] claims that this is going to happen. I believe that all these concerns about the environment are very important, not only on Namakhvani but in general. And I believe, because they’re very important, they should not be abused at all, it’s like religion… If somebody starts working on those feelings and beliefs and starts using them for their own personal or institutional interests, then we lose the bigger struggle. An environmentalist or human rights organization has its own ethics too. Once it is being used as an instrumentalized piece you end up killing the public interest. I told the company to find the environmental [experts] and if there is going to be a challenge of that scientific, expert knowledge, to ask another expert, another one which you believe has no conflict of interest. Anyone, the Green Alternative, Fair Energy [Platform] –  if I were [from an] activist organization, I will be saying these are the environmental points we talk about and we want these points to be explored.

This was precisely one of the questions to you, asking isn’t this rather the obligation of the government and the company to carry out risk assessments? Nevertheless, there have been reports, like from Ilia State University’s earth science experts saying that Namakhvani HPP would not survive [the earthquakes we have seen in the past in this area], and they even addressed the government about it…

About Tea [Godoladze and concerned earth scientists], she’s a very respectable scientist, she has correspondence with Turkey. When I saw that, I told the company, this professor has a report, what’s your view on that? But seismology is – you put some environmentalism in the activities – I want to find out what exactly. There will be an environmental impact, there is no way you cannot have an impact and have a dam. You have to weigh and if you say we don’t want to change anything, then don’t do agriculture, don’t make roads. You have already two dams in that place.

Rather smaller dams though…

Doesn’t matter, the dam is a dam. The same people are challenging small dams with the same arguments. We want full transparency about the company and government, which is there, and I also want full transparency about everybody’s agenda, everybody’s funds, resources, and claims. Myself, I don’t want to die as a diplomat, and I want to retire and do activism for the things I feel are important, and the environment is one of them. And if I have an environmental agency, the first thing I would do is to get funding for my own study. You can even play in a way that your study will be funded by independent sources. I want to see the agenda. And that’s why I understand people, young or old, doesn’t matter, activism is not about being young or old, activism is about caring, and I have great respect for it, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a diplomat… Because I believe in the defense of my country’s interests, and I believe those interests can be only defended properly if I can promote peace and cooperation.

And on ENKA, the Namakhvani issue came at a time when obviously the whole regional issue, the energy security, connectivity, and the regional geopolitical map is on the move. Not all the people of the activists are necessarily directed by manipulated information, but they are affected because they lose their agenda sometimes. They sway the narratives.

I will read you [remarks by] Beka Natsvlishvili, [former MP, who at the discussion] said: “the Turkish Ambassador met the Minister of Interior two days ago, and then the next day they sent the police in Namakhvani.” I asked for the appointment four weeks ago from [Minister Vakhtang] Gomelauri… I was talking about something completely different [with him] and then I said, yes, in Namakhvani I would like protection, please, because they burnt the cars there last time, the demonstrators burned a working car, a caterpillar… We want the protection of the company, people, Turkish people there, and the cars and everything, we don’t want provocations. My nightmare is a provocation. Just imagine somebody throws a Molotov cocktail just to [implicate] the protesters. It happens…

There are other ways than making this an issue of Turkish-Georgian narrative, which they’re turning it into. [In this discussion] Mr. Natsvlishvili is [talking] like how [ENKA] is going to make money. They’re going to make money, this is not going to be for charity definitely. [In that discussion] Mr. Lasha Chanturidze said Turkey has a geopolitical interest in Rioni Valley. I refute this, no, Turkey doesn’t have any geopolitical interest in the Rioni Valley. He claims that Turkey targets to control waters in Georgia. No, we don’t have any intention of controlling Georgian waters and nobody can do it, by the way. No state, no government, will allow whether a company builds a dam or not, to [transfer] sovereign rights on that water [to others].

ENKA did not develop this project. This project was developed long before ENKA showed any interest in Georgia. If you don’t want HPPs, this is Georgia’s decision, but once you start doing things, you can’t go back that easy. There is a cost to it. The cost of it is not ENKA will quit this project (I hope they will stay and will continue works because this is a very good company which should be helping Georgian economy). They should come to Georgia and work, develop, and when they come, it’s a [manifestation of] trust. If ENKA is there, this is what the Turkish investors, Turkish and international people will think, that this is a place where you can do business. If ENKA pulls out, there will be a question mark for the Turkish business in the Georgian business environment. Turks are known to be very resilient and efficient in terms of developing their business in their new markets. If Turks cannot work in an environment, nobody can.

This is not targeting ENKA, but particularly Turkish-Georgian economic ties. All that noise around geopolitics and anti-Turkish rhetoric which is there – today I’ve just seen in the Facebook [user] starting from 1065… writing all the historical things there is and how Ottomans were bad, and how Turks are genetic enemies of Georgians. How can you be a genetic enemy of anyone? This is a racist narrative. All these arguments are going to hit and cause isolation of Georgia economically and that is pushing to a certain direction, this is the danger I see.

Your Excellency, you said you were taken aback by the xenophobic rhetoric and the symbols displayed by some of the protesters. The government and its supportive media also similarly accented these elements. You argued that those who gather to contest the controversial HPP construction process are not a homogenous group, which is indeed the case now. The leaders of this protest have been saying repeatedly that their key concerns are with the government not being duly diligent when issuing the construction permits, and cite environmental concerns. Some groups at the protest forefront are actually the ones working against xenophobia and islamophobia in the country. Do you think, you are somehow excessively dragged perhaps into this internal contestation when backing this government line about xenophobia of protestors? 

When protesters were there at the beginning, there were environmentalists and so on, and this is why I asked the company what was the situation with the environment. And then we encouraged them, to get experts local who are against this project, internationals, who might be unbiased. But once I heard in October or November when they put a religious symbol in the middle of the construction site, there was this like 20,000 Turks will be coming, and anti-Turkish chanting started, then I was worried about how legitimate concerns of the environmental activists or the local people could be manipulated by others… That’s a distortion. I am not supporting the government line, I want the government to take precautions, so that distortion, which is not necessarily from within Georgia, manipulation will not take over this whole issue… [I’ve seen on Facebook] a man speaking outside Chavchavadze [Avenue] saying that Turkish police will be coming in Namakhvani. And when you look in the other shares by [that person], you could see the use of this classic Soviet propaganda of “beware of the Turk, beware of the Muslims, beware of Islam.”

…Remember what happened during the [October 2020 parliamentary] elections. A certain political party put a billboard in Batumi calling Turkey an occupier, and that particular party has been using, and not only then, by the way… In essence, it is anti-NATO, anti-Western propaganda which is using the Turkish brand. I have seen this not only in Adjara but in Samtskhe-Javakheti as well, where the population is of predominantly ethnic Armenian origin. The rumors that if Georgia joins NATO, there will be Turkish troops in Samtskhe-Javakheti is propaganda against NATO membership of Georgia, and they are using “Turk the terrible” brand. The same thing happened in Namakhvani. I believe there are always legitimate points by people who live in a place where this big project is going to be built, or there are political forces in Georgia against the government policy about either the energy or this particular project, but it should be that debate should be done on the basis of the merits of the case, not the identity of the company’s ownership, not against the background of that horrible prejudice, distorted use, abuse of history… And my job as the diplomat is to address [these prejudices]. I cannot ignore this problem, because it will get worse and it will hit, first of all, Georgian interests, because whoever is behind this, they are trying to isolate Georgia from Turkey, from the West, from investments. And that is dangerous for Georgia’s future…

I am not interfering at all with any Georgian political discussion. As a neighboring country, we follow [Georgia], but when it comes to the bad intentions of third parties, who might be manipulating… it’s my job and not only my job [to address them]… I love Georgia. I love the people, I have friends here. And why should I let the other people, who might be harmful to this country, take a point… If I’m not going to speak, who will speak, by the way?!