TBILISI — The Georgian capital is built upon a hill, sandwiched in the midst of towering peaks. The same can be said about this country, wedged between powerful regional neighbors. As Georgia's economy and aspirations rise, Tbilisi's growing middle class is flocking to private schools to educate its children. There's just one problem: some of them belong to the Hizmet movement of exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen.
Georgia, a former Soviet republic, lies strategically between the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Its leaders have long dreamed of joining the European Union and NATO, but its ambitions are checked by two prominent neighbors: Russia (which invaded in 2008) to the north, and to the south, its largest trading partner, Turkey.
Now that Ankara and Moscow have seemingly made peace, Georgia's future looks rather more complicated.
After purging tens of thousands at home believed linked to Gulen, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's response to last month's coup attempt has landed in Georgia. The movement founded by Fethullah Gulen — who resides in Pennsylvania — is present in 140 countries today, but his expansion from Turkey began right here in the Caucasus after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Caucasian and Central Asian countries, many of them speaking Turkic languages, proved fertile ground for "Gulenist" schools, which flowered in the region and attracted local elites for their high quality and secular nature.
Two decades later, Erdogan wants them closed, as he blames Gulen for the failed July 15 coup. Azerbaijan has shut them down, but Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have refused. As for Russia, Vladimir Putin expelled Gulenists in the early 2000s during the war in Chechnya and banned Gulen's books in 2012, accusing him of fostering extremism.
Georgia, home to seven Gulenist schools, finds itself in a tight spot. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili was the first foreign leader to visit Ankara after the attempted coup, declaring: "Turkey is our strategic partner, and a stable and democratic Turkey is important for us."
The energy corridor linking Turkey to the Caspian Sea hangs in the balance, affecting the fates of all the countries in the region. A day before Kvirikashvili's visit, the Turkish consul in Batumi — a city close to the Turkish border known as the "Turks' Ibiza" for its beaches and casinos — denounced the city's Gulenist Sahin Friendship School as following "terrorist ideology."
"We have nothing to hide, we follow Georgian law and are open to investigations by the authorities," says Mustafa Ozdesh, the Turkish director of Sahin. In his office hang the Georgian flag and a portrait of Suleyman Demirel, the former Turkish president deposed twice by coups in 1971 and 1980.
Sahin Friendship was the first Gulenist school to open in Georgia back in 1993, with the approval of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R, quality education was a prized asset in Georgia, now home to a record 300 private schools.
"Gulen? A parallel state? We have no financial ties with him, he's just a thinker and promoter," says Ozdesh. "Our Turkish founders are Gulen sympathizers, and we have investors that follow his way of peaceful communication among cultures, ethnicities, and religions."
When asked what role Islam plays in his school, Ozdesh replies "this is a secular school, we don't teach any religion."
His claims mirror those of Gulenist institutions in the West, although some in the United States have come under scrutiny from the FBI for alleged "radical" ties. Georgia is an Orthodox Christian-majority country, but is also home to a sizeable Muslim minority — largely moderate, except for the troublesome Pankisi Gorge, home to deceased Islamic State leader Omar al-Shishani.
The Sahin Friendship school's curriculum focuses on mathematics, physics, and chemistry — all taught in English — along with foreign languages like Russian and Turkish. Yearly tuition fees for the 400 students vary between 3,800 and 4,500 Georgian lari ($1,630 to $1,920) in a country where the average monthly wage is $400, but the school offers scholarships for academic merit. "Our target is the middle class," says Ozdesh.
Few Georgians have any idea who Fethullah Gulen is. "Sahin Friendship has an excellent reputation. I wanted an international and non-Soviet education for my two kids," says Maia Chitashvili. "Turkey has always been our bridge to Europe, but now we too are victims of this war."
Ozdesh says Georgia is the most democratic country in the region. "It respects human rights and is on its way to joining Europe," he says. "If the government closes or represses us, then it will veer towards authoritarianism." On his laptop, he opens a link to the website turkeypurge.com.
"Did you know that Turkey now has the world's second-largest prison population after China? They've closed 1,043 Gulenist private schools, 1,229 foundations and charities, and 35 hospitals," he says. Gulen's followers around the world risk becoming an army of exiles, never to return home.