Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Diplomacy Could Fool the World or Change the Caucasus

New Europe - September 19th 2009

Relations between Turkey and Armenia have been overshadowed by the Armenian genocide for close to a hundred years. So the protocols signed last Saturday (10 October), aimed at establishing diplomatic relations and opening the common border, represent a remarkable peak in relations between those two countries. The question is whether the protocols will have a chance of ever being implemented.

Of course, there have been accusations against Turkey of making empty gestures over Armenia to impress the West, particularly the EU, which Turkey hopes to join one day. Isolated and economically stagnant, Armenia has much to gain from normalized relations and a re-opening of the shared border. So it has made great efforts and painfully offered to ignore the genocide issue for now, to reach out to Turkey.

Turkey’s decision to react positively to Armenia's overtures first appeared to be based on long-term strategic considerations. Turkey knows that improving relations by opening its long closed border with Armenia is essential to its goal of both becoming a regional political player as well as joining the EU, which wants peaceful and trade-rich borders, not borders that are disputed or highly militarized.

But the strategy became more obvious, when Turkey inserted a quasi precondition to the ratification of the protocols, the resolution of the conflict about Nagorno Karabakh, which is official Azerbaijani territory despite being part of Armenia's historic homeland and 90 per cent of the population being ethnic Armenians. Foreign Minister Davutoglu wanted to make a respective speech at the signing ceremony, which US pressure prevented in the very last minute – so no speeches were consequently held.

Turkey's breakthrough with Armenia has incited a sharp deterioration of relations with Azerbaijan, which remains on a war footing with Armenia. The Aliyev government in Baku now feels abandoned by its closest regional ally and Muslim Turkic ‘brother’. After all in the early 1990’s, Turkey officially justified closing its border with Armenia as an act of solidarity with Azerbaijan, which had just lost the war with Armenia over Karabakh.

Now, while the Islamist AK party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoys a very comfortable parliamentary majority in the house, Erdogan said only one day after the signature what Davutoglu was not allowed to say on the evening: The Turkish parliament would find it difficult to ratify the protocols as long as there are Armenian troops on Azeri territory, i.e. in Karabakh. Remembering that the international community has been trying to find a solution for Karabakh for more than 15 years, this statement seems to signal that Turkey does not intend to open the border in the foreseeable future.

Observers feared that this could lead to a total breakdown of the process, but the Armenian President apparently decided to show to the world that the ball remains in the Turkish court, by announcing that he would still visit Turkey for the return football match between Turkey and Armenia on 14 October. The first match last autumn was the occasion for his invitation to the Turkish President and triggered the whole rapprochement process, hence dubbed “football diplomacy”.

The biggest problem with Erdogan’s statement is that it renders the frozen conflict Karabakh dispute virtually unsolvable. Experts were hoping that a normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia would force Azerbaijan to make more meaningful proposals in the negotiations about Karabakh. Instead, the situation is now inverted.

The Azerbaijani leadership now knows that any concession on Karabakh would also trigger a victory for Armenia’s diplomacy vis-ŕ-vis Turkey, open the border and strengthen Armenia’s independence. Baku has said several times that all this would be contrary to its national interests.

If there is still a potential to conclude this process, it now depends strongly on Turkey’s motivation to go ahead, bypassing Azerbaijani pressure. To this end, the question of energy supply is part of Turkey’s calculations.

Azerbaijan may have a lot of oil and gas, but Turkey is indispensable to the transport and marketing of those energy resources to key European markets. This consideration correlates with the view of many analysts that Turkey wants above all to portray itself as a reliable energy hub essential to Western energy security. The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline has now been operational for three years and the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline, which also runs from Azerbaijan through Turkey, has won heavy financial and diplomatic backing from both the EU and the US. By kicking up a fuss about the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement, Azerbaijan will irritate its Western partner, whose approval will be vital as Azerbaijan itself seeks greater integration into Euroatlantic security and economic structures.

The Turkey-Armenia détente is also an effort by both sides to affirm ties to Russia. Moscow has long been Armenia’s protector against any military aggression by Turkey. Armenia is also Russia’s only strong friend in the South Caucasus. Turkey’s relations with Russia have been less straightforward over the past century but recently they have warmed substantially.

Just before Turkey and Armenia announced their breakthrough, Russia and Turkey announced a series of measures to deepen cooperation on energy issues. In particular, Turkey is facilitating Gazprom’s Southstream pipeline through its territorial waters – which is the Kremlin’s latest effort to maintain a stranglehold on gas supplies to Europe – while at the same time with strong EU backing Turkey is pressing ahead with the Nabucco project, provided an angry Azerbaijan does not pull out. Clearly, Russia is using some tempting economic and strategic sweeteners to try and drive a wedge between Turkey and the EU, while Turkey seems to enjoy playing Russia and the EU against each other.

Of course Turkey’s decision to heed Armenia’s call for normalized relations is infused with a healthy dose of cynical realpolitik, but the same can be said for Armenia, which ultimately has as much to gain from the deal as Turkey does, not least the ability to trade with the impoverished eastern Turkish regions and enable nostalgic Armenians to readily visit and restore some of the cultural patrimony to their long abandoned historic villages close to the border.

But these realpolitik maneuvers should not obscure the tangible progress that this détente could represent. Turkey still has far to go before it can convince the EU of its readiness to join.

But any moves to reduce tension in the South Caucasus should be welcomed unequivocally. Anyway, the Caucasus badly needs a sign like this potentially first ever diplomatic resolution of a dispute. To allow for all this, the key question for the West now is how to ensure that Armenia and Turkey actually ratify and implement the Swiss brokered protocols.