Turkish-Armenian Normalisation and “Great Power Politics”

Map of the Caucasus region. This image is subject to a GNU license.

May 20, 2009
By Richard Giragosian
Although the effort to “normalise” relations between Armenia and Turkey has emerged as the most significant development in the Caucasus in the past year, Turkey’s engagement of Armenia represents only one element of a much larger, more ambitious Turkish agenda. In fact, Turkey is now pursuing a new policy of deepening its ties to not only the countries of the Caucasus, but also of including the countries of Central Asia. From this perspective, Turkey’s Stability Platform and policy of “zero problems” with its neighbours, including its engagement of Armenia, has assumed a much deeper and broader significance.

The April 2009 visit to Armenia by Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan demonstrates Turkey’s leading role on two levels: within the region, as Babacan was dispatched to Yerevan to participate in a Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) ministerial meeting, and bilaterally, through the pursuit of a new “normalisation” of relations with Armenia, as reflected in Babacan’s bilateral talks with Armenian, Russian, and Azerbaijani officials.

The different variables of the equation

As the latest element of the process of Turkish engagement, the Babacan visit to Armenia also reveals the complex and sometimes confusing “equation” of Turkish-Armenian normalisation. It involves a wide set of variables, each of which reflects different and often competing interests, as well as posing various obstacles to the normalisation of Turkish-Armenian relations.

This includes not only the regional actors, such as Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, and even Georgia, but also the United States. In this way, the current equation goes well beyond the interests of the two main parties, Turkey and Armenia, but also encompasses the full set of competing powers and interests, as well as a pivotal non-state actor, the Armenian diaspora itself.

Russian support, Iranian apprehension

Russia has played a leading role in the early stages of the process: Armenia’s invitation to Turkish President Abdullah Gül was extended during Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian’s visit to Moscow.

Russian policy has long been opposed to any significant improvement in relations between Armenia and Turkey. The closed border was seen as a helpful way to maintaining Russian dominance over Armenia, as demonstrated by the continued presence of a Russian military base and Russian border guards, as well as its economic dominance of Armenia. But Russian policy shifted dramatically in the wake of the August 2008 crisis, with a possible Armenian-Turkish rapprochement only serving to bolster the Russian strategy to more completely isolate, marginalise, and surround Georgia. Nevertheless, Russia will only remain supportive as long as the future direction of Armenian-Turkish relations remains under its control.

Russian control

There are added benefits for Russia from the issue, however, such as the possible sale of electricity to eastern Turkey from Russian-owned energy networks in Armenia. The beginning thaw between Turkey and Armenia was also a diplomatic coup by Moscow as Russia managed to seize the initiative from the Americans. The Armenian president publicly invited his Turkish counterpart to Armenia while on an official visit to Moscow, closely co-ordinating his move with Russian officials.

Yet, a second important regional actor, Iran, is not pleased. For Iran, its exclusion from Turkey’s so-called Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform is a threat to its role in the region. Iran perceives of Turkey’s strategy as an effort to contain and constrain its interests be it in terms of regional security or energy policy.

Azerbaijani betrayal, Georgian isolation

Azerbaijan and Georgia are both outraged over recent developments. Baku feels betrayed and Tbilisi fears further isolation. For Azerbaijan, Turkey’s recent moves are especially troubling. Without progress over the region’s last remaining “frozen conflict”, Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan sees any Turkish move to open its border with Armenia as an undeserved reward.

In fact, the likelihood of normalised relations also spurred Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to borrow a traditionally Russian tactic, threatening to cut off supplies of natural gas to Turkey. Although Aliyev seems assured of domestic support for his stance, his position is much weaker than it seems. This has also raised new concerns that Azerbaijan may decide to not export its gas through Turkey, but may turn to Russia instead.

Yet there is an interesting weakness to Azerbaijan’s threats. First, Azerbaijan has nowhere else to go. Despite the end of the concept of a joint Turkish-Azerbaijani axis under the slogan of “one nation, two states”, Baku needs Ankara much more than the other way around - especially after Russia’s consolidation of power and influence in the region in the wake of the 2008 war in Georgia.

Azerbaijan’s weakness

Second, no matter how unhappy Azerbaijani leaders may be with the Turkish move to embrace Armenia, they do realise that Turkish officials have become frustrated with their limited options in the region. For years Turkish foreign policy had been virtually hostage to Azerbaijan because its approach toward Armenia had been linked with the question of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The third factor tending to marginalise Azerbaijani opposition is the new balance of power after the Georgian war. Azerbaijan is no longer able to withstand the tide of regional change, as the course of Turkish-Armenian normalisation has finally become inevitable, with even Russia offering its support.

Similarly, Georgia is increasingly concerned by the efforts to open the border between Turkey and Armenia. For Georgia this seems to spell deeper isolation and has the potential to increase its marginalisation after its 2008 defeat by Russia. Moreover, Georgia has lost its role as a transit state for energy and is worried over the improvement in Turkish-Russian relations.

At a crossroads

Nearly eight months after a brief but deadly war in Georgia that reshaped the geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus, the region is set for a second, equally powerful transformation, as Armenia and Turkey are on the threshold of announcing a historic agreement on a normalisation of relations and an opening of the borders.

For over fifteen years, the closed border between these two neighbours has stood as one of the world’s last Berlin-style “walls”, with Turkey maintaining a stubborn blockade and trade embargo of landlocked Armenia, imposed in 1993 after Armenia’s military victory over Azerbaijan.

Overcoming the past

After the historic visit to Armenia by Turkish President Abdullah Gül in September 2008, the first-ever visit to Armenia by a Turkish head of state, both sides now seem poised to open their borders, establish diplomatic relations, and form some sort of “bilateral commission” with the aim of tackling all outstanding issues, even the contentious Armenian genocide. Although the agreement follows months of secret diplomatic negotiations hosted by the Swiss, this present period may pose one of the most difficult tests for Turkey.

For Turkey, the challenge of normalising relations with Armenia is the reaction of its long-time ally and fellow Turkic state Azerbaijan. Turkey still views the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a central factor to regional stability. The difference today is that Turkey no longer seeks to merely support Azerbaijan.

Thus, if both sides can survive these immediate challenges, it seems likely that both Turkey and Armenia have a real chance to surmount their differences. Yet such a bold move also requires a pioneering political will capable of solving the difficult equation of so many competing actors and conflicting interests. One can only hope that both Turkey and Armenia are able to show such statesmanship, otherwise the danger is that they will remain hostages to the past and that the future will pass them by.

Richard Giragosian is director of the Yerevan-based Armenian Center for National and International Studies.