Friday, 10 April 2009

Erdogan, Azerbaijan and the Armenian Question

Published in Articles

By Svante E. Cornell (vol. 2, no. 7 of the Turkey Analyst)

The past several weeks have seen the level of diplomatic rumoring on a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement reach new heights. The Turkish government embarked on this endeavor seriously last Summer, a move that could redraw the geopolitics of the Caucasus in unpredictable ways, depending on how it is undertaken. While the initiative had much to do with Turkish-US relations, the Obama visit paradoxically coincided with Ankara being forced to hit the brakes on the issue, at least temporarily. It has once again been made clear that the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict remains the major security challenge in the region, and that it needs to be tackled head on.

BACKGROUND:Turkish-Armenian relations have been tense since the independence of Armenia. While Turkey was among the first countries to recognize Armenia’s independence in late 1991, the two states never established diplomatic relations, and the border between has remained closed for 17 years. The tensions between the two countries relate both with history, the controversy over the massacres of 1915, and the present, Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani territory.

Both factors contributed to prevent a normalization of relations. Suspicious of Armenian irredentism advanced especially by the Armenian diaspora, Ankara wanted Yerevan to recognize the border between the countries. Arguing that the initiation of diplomatic relations would imply the mutual recognition of borders, Armenian leaders refused to make what they termed a “superfluous statement” to that effect. Since 1998, moreover, the campaign to have the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire recognized as “Genocide” has become government policy in Yerevan, bringing it in alignment with the diaspora groups and irritating Ankara further.  Yet the closure of the border was related mainly to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, which escalated soon after the two countries’ independence in 1992. When Armenia intervened militarily on the side of the Nagorno Karabakh Armenians and deployed troops on Azerbaijani territory, Ankara sided with Azerbaijan, with which it enjoys close cultural and linguistic ties. The ethnic cleansing of over 800,000 Azerbaijani Turks from Karabakh itself and surrounding territories that Armenia has occupied since the war further solidified Ankara’s position.

In later years, Turkey sought to make the normalization of its relations with Armenia an element in the peace process between its two neighbors – essentially offering to open its border with Armenia at some point in a coordinated sequence of events that would contribute to a resolution of the conflict. Nevertheless, Turkey refused to take that step unilaterally, demanding prior Armenian concessions in the conflict; not to do so, the logic went, would lead to abandoning the remaining leverage on Armenia to vacate occupied territories, and essentially accepting the ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis. Turkey’s position has been close to paying off. In 2002, for example, former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev offered to initiate economic and trade relations with Armenia in exchange for the liberation of four of the seven occupied provinces around Nagorno-Karabakh, at which point Turkey would also lift its economic embargo. Armenia, ruled by Robert Kocharyan, nevertheless refused, although this constituted the first sign of willingness by Baku to de-link the lifting of the economic embargo on Armenia from Karabakh’s status.

Yet fifteen years after the cease-fire, the border remains closed, the conflict unresolved,  Armenia isolated, and the Azerbaijani displaced persons have yet to return to their homes. Meanwhile, the Armenian diaspora has stepped up its efforts to achieve international recognition of the massacres as Genocide; last year, only a determined intervention by the White House prevented the passing of a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In Turkey, voices calling for a new approach to the Armenian question have gradually risen as the deadlock over Karabakh continues. Business lobbies from the eastern provinces bordering Armenia have called for the opening of the border, as have forces uneasy with a perception that Azerbaijan holds a veto over Turkish relations with a neighbor on an issue that hurts Turkey internationally. Indeed, Turkish leaders have been under pressure from both Washington and European capitals to normalize ties with Armenia.

But until 2008, prospects for normalization seemed remote as the calculus of Turkish national interests spoke against unilateral Turkish action. The move was unlikely as long as political forces sensitive to Turkic solidarity were strong in the Turkish government, for which such a move would constitute a sellout of its closest ally and kindred country in the Caucasus. Secondly, even leaving aside the cultural linkages, Turkey hardly stood to gain from the move. It being obvious that a Turkish de-linking of the Armenian border issue from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict would inevitably alienate Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s population is almost three times Armenia’s, its GDP almost four times larger. It has large energy resources that flow to Turkey, and is strategically located as Turkey’s gateway to Central Asia. If winning over Armenia meant losing the privileged relationship with Azerbaijan, that seemed like a bad trade.

Three reasons combined to change Ankara’s calculus in 2008. First, the AKP secured re-election in 2007, emboldening it in its foreign and domestic policies. Its foreign policy doctrine, formulated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief advisor Ahmet Davutoglu, featured a “zero-problem” policy with neighbors; moreover, the AKP is rooted in political Islam, and therefore many of its leaders have a stronger self-identification as Muslims rather than as Turks. They therefore have only limited interest in the Turkic but secularized (and in the Azerbaijani case also mainly Shi’a rather than Sunni) post-Soviet republics compared to the non-Turkic but pious Middle East, which has always figured prominently in their priorities. Resistance to an opening toward Armenia was hence weakened.

Second, the war in Georgia shook the fragile status quo in the South Caucasus and led to greater activism in Ankara. More specifically, it led Ankara to propose a “Stability Platform” for the South Caucasus that significantly, aside from the three states of the South Caucasus, included Russia but no western power.(See Turkey Analyst, 29 August 2008) The initiative was well-received in Yerevan, whereas Baku and Tbilisi both reacted warily. That may seem curious for a Turkish initiative, but both capitals had reason for concern. In fact, the peculiar architecture of Russia, Turkey and the three small countries would further decrease Western influence in the region; moreover, some of the associated proposals appeared to serve to freeze the territorial situation in the region and thereby the occupation by Russia and Armenia, respectively, of about a fifth of Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s territory. This shift in Turkish policy – which appeared to imply acceptance of a “junior partner” position to Russia in the Caucasus – opened the way for further contacts with Armenia.

President Barack Obama addresses Turkish Parliament

Third, Barack Obama was elected President of the U.S. in November. Obama had made it clearer than any major presidential candidate in modern history that he intended to recognize the Armenian massacres as Genocide if elected president, leading to acute concerns in Ankara. To thwart a resolution, Ankara was hence running out of options. Yet a rapprochement with Armenia could change the calculus in Washington. As everyone understood that U.S. recognition of the massacres as Genocide would make a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement domestically impossible, the prospect of exactly such a rapprochement could therefore influence both the Obama administration and moderate elements in the Armenian diaspora to desist from pressing for a resolution. In fact, arguing for one would now appear foolhardy, as it could prevent the best chance in years to improve Armenia’s regional situation.

IMPLICATIONS: These factors all combined to bring about the “soccer diplomacy” that began when Turkish President Abdullah Gül traveled to Yerevan in early September to attend a qualifying game between the national teams of the two countries. That in turn boosted a flurry of diplomatic exchanges and meetings between Turkish and Armenian cabinet ministers, accelerating in the first months of 2009. By late March, plans for a normalization of relations beginning in early April were unofficially announced and leaked to the media.

But these plans fudged the question whether Ankara had effectively de-linked its normalization of relations with Armenia from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. In Baku, concerns were mounting that Ankara had done exactly that. It is clear from both Turkish and Azerbaijani sources that Ankara kept notifying Baku of most of its intentions, but fell far from consulting with its counterparts there, let alone seek ways to bring Baku on board.

Ali Babacan and Elmar Mammedyarov

Matters were brought to a point when President Obama announced his intention to travel to Turkey in early April, right after Turkey’s March 29 local elections. Azerbaijani officials started making their opposition to the developments known. Indeed, events were now pushing Baku to a crossroads. Baku already acutely felt the vacuum of Western presence in the region following the Russian-Georgian war, and was disillusioned by Turkish and German moves to stymie its prospects of exporting gas through the Nabucco pipeline to Europe. (See CACI Analyst, 25 March 2009) Turkish moves now led Baku to see the foundations of its balanced, pro-western foreign policy unraveling – all while Gazprom was tickling Baku by offering full European prices to buy all of Azerbaijan’s gas exports.

Baku’s reaction did not register in Turkish media and politics until after the local elections, in which the AKP did much worse than expected, losing almost ten percentage points compared to its results in the 2007 national elections. Turkish media and both main opposition parties now started castigating the government for selling out Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev then pulled out from a planned trip to the high-profile Istanbul summit of the Alliance of Civilizations. Turkish efforts to secure his attendance failed, as did two phone calls from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, including one promising a meeting with President Obama.

As Aliyev stayed home, Erdogan was faced with the choice of backpedaling or to appearing to sell out Azerbaijan – an option that could have caused strong reverberations domestically, even within his own party, and which could have been the final straw that pushed Baku into Moscow’s orbit. Predictably, Erdogan therefore backpedaled, making it clear that Armenian concessions on Karabakh remained a prerequisite for the ratification of any Turkish-Armenian agreement, if not its signing. Yerevan’s disappointment was best illustrated by Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian’s decision to delay his travels to Ankara for attending the summit.

CONCLUSIONS: The Turkish leadership may have achieved one major aim of his rapprochement with Armenia: following President Obama’s speech in the Turkish parliament and his clear efforts to rebuild the Turkish-American strategic partnership, American recognition of the 1915 massacres as Genocide are now quite unlikely – for this year. But the episode suggests a number of lessons for Turkish as well as American policy-makers to draw.

Events have made it clear that Turkish-Armenian relations and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict are not easily de-linked. Turkey simply stands to lose too much by unilaterally normalizing relations and opening its border with Armenia without a quid pro quo from Yerevan. The domestic and regional losses would be so significant as to overshadow the possible benefits for any Turkish government.

Second, the key to these interlinked issues continue to remain in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. These events have served to remind the Turkish government that security and development in the South Caucasus is impossible without its full resolution. Whereas current Turkish and American leaders have sought to sidestep that fact and find shortcuts to improving regional security, recent events prove that the conflict can be ignored only both Washington’s and Ankara’s peril. Indeed, not only Azerbaijan’s interests are at stake, but Turkish and U.S. long-term interests are as well, most tangibly in energy security.

This implies that there is an opening for renewed investment of time and energy into a diplomatic push that would include both the conflict and the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. But in an otherwise excellent speech to the Turkish parliament, President Obama only mentioned the Karabakh conflict in passing, referring to Turkey’s role in helping broker a solution. He refrained from stating America’s intention to take part in that effort.

It is now to be hoped that the four parties to this issue – Ankara, Yerevan, Baku and Washington – will draw the right conclusions from the episode: that a breakthrough to advance the security of all parties is within reach; but that it will be achieved not by a piecemeal approach but by a broader tackling of the underlying root causes of insecurity in the region, namely the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. That in turn involves the status of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the occupation of Azerbaijani territories.

Given the improvements in Turkish-Armenian relations, it would now make sense for Washington to take the lead and broker a broader deal involving the three protagonists, that would secure the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations as well as substantial and concrete progress toward a resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. It may be worth revisiting a version of the 2002 gambit, whereby the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement coincides with an Armenian retreat from the occupied territories on Azerbaijan’s border with Iran, and the normalization of economic ties between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Such a package deal would truly help change the dynamics of the South Caucasus. It is achievable, but it would require sustained American commitment, and at the very least the appointment of a senior U.S. negotiator responsible for the issue.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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