turkey and russia over new geopolitical row in the caucasus

Turk troubles in Caucasus

Publication time: 2 September 2008, 18:56 
The outbreak of the Russian-Georgian War earlier this month apparently caught Ankara as poorly prepared as it caught Washington. The Turkish Foreign Ministry’s section dealing with the Caucasus reportedly was virtually unstaffed. The head of the section was in Mosul on temporary assignment, the section’s number-two spot is empty and has been for the last six months. The number three was also away on temporary assignment in Nakhichevan and the other assigned section members were on vacation, thus forcing on-duty diplomats from other desks to scramble. 

This may surprise. There are abundant reasons for one to expect that Turkey would have been following events in Georgia and the Caucasus with great diligence. The two countries share common borders and intertwined histories. Istanbul ruled large chunks of the Caucasus, including much of Georgia, for centuries, and today there remains inside Turkey a small but vibrant community of Abkhazians and related Caucasian peoples. Russia for most of the past three centuries has loomed over Turkey as its greatest rival and threat, yet at critical times, such as during the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22), it has been a key ally. Today Russia supplies somewhere around 70 percent of Turkey’s natural gas and is Turkey’s second largest trading partner. 

Georgia is a transit point for Caspian and Central Asian oil and gas and as such is critical to Turkey’s ambitions to become an energy hub and to diversify its own energy supplies. As a member of NATO, Turkey has been involved in training and supplying the Georgian military. Finally, given Turkey’s own struggle with Kurdish separatists, other instances of ethno-separatism and border revision logically should command Ankara’s keen attention. In short, both Russia and Georgia are of great strategic, economic, and historic importance to Turkey, and the principles of territorial integrity and self-determination over which the Russo-Georgian War was (nominally) fought are directly relevant to the most sensitive of Turkey’s security concerns. 

Turkey’s lack of preparedness for the Russo-Georgian war is not coincidental, but instead reflects a long-standing legacy of Kemalism. The fundamental precept of the foreign policy course laid out by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, summed up in his famous phrase, “Peace at home, peace in the world,” was that Turkey should bury its imperial past, avoid foreign entanglements, and focus on internal development. Thus the Turkish Republic deliberately isolated itself from its neighbors, especially those to its south and east. It cut cultural and other ties across the board, and preferred cordial but distant relations over close involvement and interaction. As a result, Turkey today has a strong cadre of diplomats, professors, analysts and others fluent in English and familiar with the United States and Western Europe, but it lacks the sort of expertise about its own neighborhood that one might assume it would naturally possess given its imperial history. Although challenges to this policy of isolation have emerged on occasion (briefly in the 1950s and perhaps during the early 1990s), a preference for cool detachment and inward focus has remained dominant in the Turkish bureaucracy. 

There is much to be said for avoiding foreign entanglements, and the reasoning behind “Peace at home, peace abroad” was anything but frivolous. Yet self-imposed isolation carries its own costs. Those costs rose precipitately for Turkey following the end of the Cold War as its neighborhood underwent tremendous political and economic transformation. Ignoring the events taking place around it was no solution. At this time, Turkey’s self-confidence began to grow, and more Turks began to advocate that their country play a more active role in its region. One positive development has been the emergence in Turkey of think-tanks, both official and non-governmental, dedicated to foreign and domestic issues. 

Old habits and institutional practices die hard, however, and playing an active role in such a complex region is no simple matter. As a way to break out of the old mindset and gain experience in regional affairs without great risk, Turkey has been trying to play the role of mediator in regional conflicts. The architect of this approach is Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former professor and close adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who now holds the rank of ambassador. Thus Turkey has involved itself in negotiations between Syria and Israel. Similarly, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has at times tried to position himself as a broker between the West and Iran.

Erdoğan in the midst of the Russo-Georgian War tried to apply a slightly more advanced variant of this formula by flying to Moscow, Tiblisi, and Baku and proposing a “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform.” The idea of the platform, which is sometimes also called a pact, is to bring together the three South Caucasian states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan with Turkey and Russia, and enable them to mediate and solve their conflicts among themselves. 

The idea sounds attractive, but it will not go far. Such pacts can work only if all members are willing to prioritize stability and good relations over their other interests. Yet if there is one thing we know, it is that there is no consensus for stability in the Caucasus. Russia just mounted a calculated and successful effort to overthrow the status quo in the Caucasus at the expense of another putative pact member, Georgia. Russia’s war aims, moreover, extend beyond altering the balance of power in the Caucasus to restoring its position as the dominant power in Eurasia and restructuring its relations with the United States and Europe. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are pawns in a game bigger than the Caucasus. The notion that what Russia and Georgia need in order to come to a mutually satisfactory agreement is a nearby neutral venue for their diplomats to meet verges on the surreal. Perhaps for this reason, the Russian press chose to give short shrift to Erdoğan’s call for a stability pact, and instead interpret his visit as signifying support for Russia in South Ossetia. It was not the finest moment in Turkish diplomacy. 

Azerbaijan is another state in the Caucasus that has for some time been voicing an intense dissatisfaction with the status quo. In recent months, Baku has been dropping subtle threats that it might seek to revise it by going to war. In particular, Azerbaijan is dissatisfied with the outcome of the war it fought with Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh (to use the most widespread English rendering of the region’s name), a predominantly Armenian enclave (technically it held the title of “autonomous oblast” in the Soviet Union) inside the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Karabakh War started in 1988, i.e. when the Soviet Union was still in existence, and ended with a ceasefire some six years later in 1994. During the war not only did Karabakh break free of Baku’s control, but Armenian forces managed to seize roughly fifteen percent of the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territory and expelled the Azeri inhabitants thereof, some 800,000 people. 

Since that time, Baku has not been able to achieve any redress through diplomatic measures. But thanks to foreign investment in its oil industry it has accumulated some wealth, and has used that wealth to engage in a military build-up. Whether or not Azerbaijan’s military is capable of defeating and driving out Armenian forces and restoring the occupied territories and Karabakh to Baku is by no means clear, but building frustration among Azeris might tempt them to test their luck. 

Turkey and Armenia are the two states in the Caucasus that have the greatest interest in preserving and building upon the status quo. The Armenians, i.e. the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and the Republic of Armenia, won the Karabakh War and wish to keep their gains. They would like Azerbaijan and the wider world to acknowledge the de facto independent NKR as sovereign Armenian territory (either as part of the Armenian Republic proper or as a separate republic). 

Armenia in addition would like to see Turkey lift the blockade it imposed in 1993 in response to the Armenians’ seizure of Azerbaijani territory. That blockade has stunted land-locked Armenia’s economic development, leaving it dependent upon Georgia and Iran for surface routes to the outside world. The disruption Russia’s invasion has caused to the operations of Georgia’s ports, rail lines, and roads (ironically, Turkish goods are among the biggest commodities imported along those roads into Armenia) has hit Armenia’s economy especially hard. and underscored Armenia’s isolation and fundamental vulnerability. Indeed, even before this most recent war, it was clear that Armenia’s lack of relations with Turkey had left it excessively dependent upon Russia-an unhealthy situation for any state pretending to sovereign status. (Indeed, with Armenia already virtually in its back pocket, one might imagine that Russia may seek to woo Azerbaijan to its side by compelling Armenian concessions on Karabakh.) 

For its part, Turkey since the end of the Cold War has benefited in numerous ways from the retreat of Russian power and had reason to be generally satisfied with the state of affairs in the Caucasus prior to this war. The big exception is the state of its relations with Armenia. Although Turkey was one of the very first states to recognize Armenia’s independence in 1991, it never followed up to establish relations. Several difficult issues divide the two states. One bone of contention between them is Turkey’s insistence that Armenia definitively renounce any claims on the territory of the Turkish Republic. Another is Armenia’s insistence that Turkey recognize the massacres and deportations from Anatolia of Ottoman Armenians during and after World War One as a genocide. A third is Turkey’s demand that Armenia withdraw from the territory of Azerbaijan that it occupies. 

A fourth issue is, of course, the blockade. Although the imposition of the blockade was greatly appreciated by Azerbaijan, which sees itself as the victim of Armenian aggression, it has harmed Turkey’s image worldwide by reinforcing the stereotype of the “Terrible Turk” as a bully. This is something the Turks, never mind the Azeris, find particularly irksome given that it is the Armenians now who are occupying territory seized in war. Turkish support for Azerbaijan has impaired Turkish efforts to counter the lobbying by Armenian diaspora groups of legislative bodies worldwide to classify the mass deaths of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Opening the border with Armenia, some Turkish officials believe, would enable Turkey to thwart these efforts more effectively. 

Economics provides another incentive for Turkey to open its borders. Turkey’s east is isolated, distant from markets, and remains underdeveloped. Opening the border with Armenia would provide a boost to the local economy by enabling cross-border trade. It would also make available better routing options for oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian and export corridors to the Caspian and beyond, and thereby provide a boon to Turkey’s national economy as well. 

In a gesture intended perhaps to break the stalemate in Turkish-Armenian relations, the Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian invited his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül to come to Yerevan on September 6 to watch the national soccer teams of the two nations play a World Cup qualifying match. Gül, some Turks hope, will seize the moment to initiate a major shift in the region’s diplomacy. Gül has not yet committed. Were Gül to do so, it would mark a significant change not just in Turkish-Armenian relations, but even more so in Turkish diplomacy, which has a tradition of working slowly and with exceeding caution, and of letting opportunities slip by. 

Indeed, with Russian forces now inside Georgia, both Turkey and Armenia (as well as Azerbaijan) probably already have missed an opportunity to overcome their differences and to chart a path toward more secure and prosperous futures for their societies. The Russian state, whether in its Tsarist, Soviet, and contemporary forms has demonstrated substantial skill in manipulating ethnic and other cleavages on its borderlands to weaken its competitors. It is worth remembering that Russia was involved in the emergence of all of the conflicts mentioned above (Turkish-Armenian, Azeri-Armenian, Ossetian-Georgian, and Abkhazian-Georgian) among others. That is not to say that Russia invented these conflicts. Hardly. At times Russia has expended considerable efforts to contain and resolve them. But Russia is not an outsider to them and possesses an intimate familiarity with them-a familiarity that it can, has, and will deploy to its advantage. 

Strength is a relative thing. Sapping the cohesion and power of one’s potential rivals is often as effective, and occasionally even more useful, a method for overcoming them than is building up one’s own strength. There are more fissures for Russia to exploit in the Caucasus. The Turkish-Armenian-Azerbaijani fissure is an easy one to exploit. For reasons of history, memory, and culture, all of these societies remain deeply conflicted regarding relations with each other. Finding and pushing the buttons to poison the atmosphere and disrupt any move toward reconciliation is not difficult. 

Russia exerts tremendous influence over Armenia, and considerable influence over Azerbaijan. Turkey, too, is vulnerable to Russian pressure. Already Turkish businessmen are fretting over the way increased scrutiny by Russian customs of their goods is harming Turkish exports and are wondering if such scrutiny is intended as a message to Turkey to refrain from close cooperation with the United States against Russia. 

Keeping Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan at loggerheads serves Russia by neutralizing the power and options of its Caucasian neighbors, keeping them dependent, and blocking the development of the Caucasus as an alternative corridor for energy and trade. It also serves varied domestic interests in each of those states. But it does nothing for those societies aside from depriving them of options for future development. 

It is not clear that Russia’s defeat of Georgia will restore it to the position of hegemon in the Caucasus, but it will increase Moscow’s ability to play the role of regional spoiler. Although many Turks and Armenians retain doubts about the propriety of closer relations between their countries, important constituencies inside the governments and societies of the two nations recognize the multiple benefits better ties would bring. Their difficulty is convincing others that improved relations are, in fact, conceivable. Thus were Gül and Sarkisian to meet this September and announce together that they intend that their states should, together with Azerbaijan, overcome their differences, their words would have a real impact. 

As the larger, more senior, more established, and more powerful state, Turkey is the better candidate to take the lead in the drive toward reconciliation. But it is not likely to happen. With Russia inside Georgia, and the Caucasus reverting again to a theater of Great Power confrontation, time is running out. Boldness is required. Yet whereas Moscow drew from its imperial collapse the lesson that fortune favors the bold, Ankara took from the Ottoman experience the lesson that extreme discretion is the better part of valor.

By Michael Reynolds, Middle East Strategy at Harvard

Kavkaz Center

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