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Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan: The Clock Is Ticking, CU Issue 46, September 7, 2009

After a lengthy pause, the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement is back on the agenda. The move to normalise relations between the two neighbours first surfaced back in April, but soon stalled. Now, with the mediation of Switzerland, Ankara and Yerevan have announced plans to normalise relations through protocols on establishing diplomatic relations and developing bilateral ties, which are due to be signed into law by the respective parliaments within six weeks (news.am, September 1). The border is due to open within two months of the diplomatic relations protocol coming into force (Reuters, August 31). The stage is potentially set for a serious re-adjustment of the geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

The six week timeframe is worth noting, for two reasons. It ends on October 13, the day before Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian is due to visit Turkey for a football match between the two countries, the first leg of which began the rapprochement last September. So the plan seems to be that the visit to Turkey will see the formal signing of a peace deal, with the border being opened soon afterwards.

More significantly, the six weeks are specifically set aside for ‘political consultations’ with domestic actors. Clearly, persuading constituencies at home to support the agreement is going to be extremely difficult. For decades, Turks and Armenians have viewed each other as an implacable historical enemy, and reaction to the April thaw was fierce. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) pulled out of the ruling coalition, and can be expected to staunchly oppose the bill, as will the Turkish MHP and CHP parties. As analyst Yigal Schliefer observes, Turkish voters are also being asked to trust the government’s initiative to make peace with the Kurds at the same time (Eurasianet, September 4).

The whole peace process could conceivably be stalled by domestic pressure from nationalist groups. Armenia is arguably more at risk of this. Unlike Turkey’s ruling AKP, President Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia does not hold a significant parliamentary majority. The Diaspora, traditionally more hardline than Armenians within the country, may also exert pressure.

What may be most explosive, however, is the decision to set up a “dialogue on the historical dimension”. In other words, a commission to reappraise what Armenians view as genocide but which Turkey has only ever viewed as regrettable tragic events during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Although important for Turks, the issue is a cornerstone of Armenia’s national identity, and by signing the mentioned protocols the Armenian government will commit itself to stopping its world-wide campaign to achieve the recognition of the 1915 events as genocide. Therefore, any reappraisal will certainly be rejected by the Armenian opposition and Diaspora.

Providing that both governments pass the protocols smoothly, a host of obstacles await. Chief amongst these is the position of Turkey’s historic ally Azerbaijan. One of the main reasons that the April thaw failed was because of Baku’s opposition to any Turkish-Armenian deal which failed to pressure Yerevan to withdraw from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Turkish officials were forced to announce that the opening of the border would be contingent on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. The new protocols, by omitting Karabakh or any reference to Azerbaijan, seem to reverse this statement. But there is little doubt that Turkey expects progress on Karabakh – even if the government has no such expectation, the Turkish parliament will. Six weeks seems a fantastically optimistic timeframe to see progress on Karabakh, and most likely Ankara would be satisfied with formal pledges of withdrawal by Armenia.

This marks a surprisingly strong intervention in the Karabakh peace process by Turkey. It is unclear whether Ankara consulted the OSCE Minsk Group of America, Russia and France, the group tasked with the conflict’s resolution. However, reports indicate that the OSCE is sending an observation group for a technical examination of the Lachin corridor, which would link Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, in late September (World Bulletin, September 5). This suggests that Turkey has done more to push the peace process forward than the Minsk Group has managed in 15 years.

If no progress is made on Karabakh by the end of the six weeks, what are Baku’s options? The first, and most damaging, would be to hold off on the Nabucco pipeline and increase cooperation with Russia, in order to reroute Azeri gas through Russia’s pipeline network. The costs would be high, and there is little appetite in Baku for becoming vulnerable to Russian political and economic influence, but such is the level of hostility in Azerbaijan to any opening of Turkish-Armenian border without the release of its occupied territories.

Russia’s own attitude to the rapprochement is hard to discern. It has expressed polite approval, but it is undoubtedly watching carefully. An open border with Turkey would allow Russia to ship material to its military base in Armenia (impossible since the closure of the Georgian land route), but would also decrease Armenia’s economic reliance on Moscow and move it towards the West. The ‘loss’ of Armenia may well be compensated by the ‘gain’ of Azerbaijan.

Ironically, this is one area where both Georgia and Russia are inclined to agree. Georgia currently acts as the sole western-oriented trade route for Armenian goods, which are shipped to its Black Sea ports. Open borders will decrease Tbilisi’s leverage in this regard. Iran, for similar reasons, may also be disinclined to approve the opening, although it (like Georgia) would not dream of publicly saying so.

The clock is ticking. Domestic political upheaval in either Armenia or Turkey is a real risk, particularly Armenia, which will have to deal with engaging Turkey and withdrawing from the occupied regions around Nagorno-Karabakh simultaneously. A serious domestic setback could stall all regional peace processes for the near future. 

Victory at home does not make victory abroad. Azerbaijan’s position is crucial, and is inflexible. Exactly what it will – or can – do if Turkey opens the border without Armenian gestures on Karabakh is impossible to establish at this stage, but gas projects from the Caspian to the West are clearly under threat. This would ruin Turkey’s reputation as an energy hub, one of its key attractions for the EU. Russia would lose some of its influence over Armenia, but could gain far greater power over Azerbaijan’s energy exports, reshaping the whole oil and gas game in the region. Most strikingly, we could see an end to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara axis, which has proved one of the most enduring alliances in Eurasia. The next six weeks could reshape the Caucasus as we know it.

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