Vol. 1, No. 17 (October 1, 2008)

Turkey and Russia jockey for position in the region

Gulnara Inandzh
International Online Information Analytic Center Ethnoglobus

The military conflict between Russia and Georgia has opened the way for Turkey to increase its role in the South Caucasus, not only because of its own skillful policies but also because both Moscow and Washington want it to, albeit for different reasons.  And what is most remarkable is that this transformation of the roles of the various players in the South Caucasus has been most visible in the evolution of the relationship between Turkey and Armenia, two countries long at odds that many felt could never reach an accord. 

The failure of the OSCE Minsk Group to move toward a resolution of the Karabakh problem has, in the wake of the Georgian war, led both Moscow and Washington to welcome Turkey’s offer to play a role on this question, the first lest it lose even more influence in the region and the second lest a reignited Karabakh war threaten its access to Caspian basin oil and gas. 
Armenia appears to welcome Turkey’s intervention in this regard not only because it promises to move the talks ahead but also because it would open the Turkish border for Armenian goods.  But Yerevan is constrained by the Armenian diaspora which insists that every country, including Turkey, must recognize the events of 1915 as genocide.  Only if the diaspora shifts its position on this will real progress be possible, and consequently, it is not surprising that the United States is seeking dialogue with various parts of the Armenian diaspora abroad about the utility for Armenia of a Turkish role in resolving the Karabakh dispute. 

But however that may be, the negotiations behind the scenes between Ankara and Yerevan began in July 2008 in Switzerland, well before the Georgian events.  And it is important to note that Yerevan did not make the recognition of the events of 1915 as genocide a precondition to these talks.  

For not Turkey but Armenia is subject to a blockade and in difficult economic circumstances, Turkish move to engage in talks with Armenia have been most likely prompted by the influence of the United States, the final goal being the opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey.  

The opening of that border and the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries would give “a green light” for American and Western expansion into Armenia.  That is something opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan has been waiting for.  His last declarations of a desire for constructive relations with the authorities and his refusal to call for their ouster are maneuvers with an eye to the Turkish-Armenian talks.

The United States would like to see Ter-Petrosyan as president of Armenia but to make that happen will require more than just talks with Turkey.  It will require massive economic assistance to get Armenia out of its current slump.  And that in turn will require the inclusion of Armenia in regional economic projects like the one that Turkey has proposed.

With the opening of the border with Turkey, Yerevan will be able to reach out to the world directly and thus free itself from its forced dependence on Russia.  But before Armenia can expect that to happen, it will have to withdraw its forces from the seven regions of Azerbaijan that it has occupied beyond the borders of Karabakh.  From the point of view of the Kremlin, this needs to take place with the participation of Russia and under the pro-Russian presidency of Serzh Sargsyan lest Moscow’s position in Armenia weaken.
How this will play out depends not only on how each of these players sees the other but on others besides.  And consequently, what would appear to be a simple vector in the relations of the countries of the South Caucasus this time as so often in the past may go in entirely unexpected directions and undercut the policies of one or more of the governments that are trying to arrange things to their liking.