Vol. 2, No. 17 (September 01, 2009)

The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement and the reordering of geopolitics in the Caucasus

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Armenia and Turkey have announced that they plan to sign agreements within the next six weeks to re-establish diplomatic relations and open their common border.  On the one hand, this announcement will certainly lead opponents of this development to step up their opposition to it and possibly derail or at least delay the signing of these accords.  But on the other hand, the declaration itself already points to a reordering of the geopolitics of the Caucasus region, a development that will affect not only all the countries within the region but also major outside powers who have vital interests there. 
Because of the uncertainties about the agreements themselves, including both their timing and specific content, and about what supporters and opponents will do, it is far too early to offer a definitive judgment on the way in which such accords will send shockwaves through the governments and societies of all the countries concerned.  But some of the likely consequences are quite clear, and this essay is offered as a kind of checklist of what the restoration of diplomatic ties and the opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey will mean.
Armenia.  Yerevan will certainly view these accords as a major victory.  They will end its geographic isolation, cut the influence of the diaspora on Armenian politics, reduce Yerevan’s dependence on Russia, the CIS and Iran, and give Armenia greater freedom of action as a result.  The impact of the accord on the Karabakh conflict is uncertain.  On the one hand, Turkey will be under enormous pressure domestically to arrange an Armenian withdrawal and Armenia will feel more secure and thus more willing to deal.  But on the other, the Armenian government may decide to proceed more slowly lest it generate adverse domestic reaction by appearing to have “sold out” Karabakh to get an accord with Ankara.  
Turkey.  Turkey will also see these accords as a triumph.  They will provide content to its affirmation of a major role in regional politics, give Ankara greater influence throughout the Caucasus, and – perhaps most important – improve Turkey’s standing with the European Union and the United States on questions like the evaluation of 1915 and possible membership in the EU.  And that in turn will give Turkey leverage on other issues including the status of the Kurds in Iraq and the security architecture of the greater Middle East.  At the same time, however, these accords will complicate Turkey’s relationship with Baku and with other Turkic and Islamic states, and such complications are certain to resonate within Turkey itself, possibly powering challenges to the government. 
Azerbaijan.  Unless Turkey can deliver an accord on Karabakh at the same time as it signs the accords with Armenia, many in Azerbaijan are certain to view Ankara’s actions as a betrayal of common Turkishness.  Indeed, it appears likely that Baku will never look at Ankara in quite the same way again if that course of events occurs.  Such feelings will have an impact on a variety of east-west projects and may lead Azerbaijan to expand its links with the Russian Federation and Iran.  And those shifts are even more likely if as seems probable Baku finds itself under pressure to reach a compromise with Yerevan.  After all, some in the international community are certain to argue, if Turkey and Armenia can overcome their differences, so too should Baku and Yerevan.  Such shifts suggest that the impact of the Armenian-Turkish accords may be greater in the public politics of Azerbaijan than anywhere else, even if these agreements do not necessarily result in major changes in Baku’s policies.
Georgia.  These accords will have a contradictory impact on Georgia.  On the one hand, they will reduce pressure on Georgia to allow transit of goods to Armenia: Yerevan now has another route.  On the other hand, they will mean that Georgia potentially will have another route out, something that could either quiet or intensify the unsettled border region between Armenia and Georgia and lead to a shift in Tbilisi’s views on various pipeline and railway projects.  But perhaps the biggest impact will come from the sense these accords are likely to generate in many quarters that sophisticated statesmen are able to solve even the most intractable problems while less capable leaders are now. 
Iran.  Tehran’s influence in Armenia will certainly decline, not only because the Zangazur bridges will become less important – Yerevan will have some new and more attractive choices – but also because Turkey’s influence will go up.  And consequently, Iran is likely to be one of the biggest losers from these agreements, one of the most unspoken explanations for why Turkey was interested in concluding them. 
The Arab and Turkic Worlds.  The Arab world is likely to view Turkey’s actions as a betrayal of Islam, thus reducing Turkey’s influence in some parts of the Middle East.  And the Turkic world, especially in Central Asia, is likely to follow Azerbaijan in viewing what Ankara has done as a betrayal of Turkishness, especially given the willingness, even enthusiasm of most Turkic governments to defend Turkey on issues like 1915.  But both of these worlds are likely to assume a pragmatic approach, possibly viewing Armenia as yet another channel for imports and exports to the larger region. 
Israel.  The Armenian-Turkish accords will almost certainly prompt Jerusalem to revisit its ties in the Caucasus and especially its Azerbaijan-centric approach.  Some in Baku may view that as a downgrading, but it more likely to be only relative rather than absolute.  Israel already has close ties with Turkey: those will increase, as will existing links with Armenia and Georgia. 
The Russian Federation.  Moscow and the CIS are the big losers as a result of the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement, however much the Russian government can be counted upon to praise the agreements.  Armenians have long been sceptical of both Moscow’s role and the CIS but have felt they had no choice but to go along given their sense of being surrounded by enemies.  That will change.  If Moscow wants to maintain its influence in Yerevan, it will have to devote far more resources.  That is unlikely.  Instead, Moscow is likely to seek to expand its influence elsewhere, most likely in Baku.  But the South Caucasus as a Russian preserve with Moscow having a droit de regard is a thing of the past. 
The European Union.  These agreements will reduce the pressure on European countries to adopt resolutions on 1915, something most of them will be pleased about, and it will boost the chances that the EU will look more positively on Turkey as an eventual member, although these accords by themselves will not overcome German and French insistence on going slow.  The EU and its member countries will also be among the first looking for possible new routes east-west and north-south that will involve Armenia.
The United States.  Washington will be pleased as well.  It will praise Turkey and step up its efforts to get Ankara into the EU.  It will be pleased to be let off the hook on 1915 given the likely decline of influence of the Armenian diaspora and happy to have a land link with Armenia.  But the US will also have to accept a much greater role for Turkey in the region and have to defer to Ankara on questions that the US had thought it was in complete control of.
Given the enormous number of likely or at least possible consequences, the way in which they will interact with each other means that not all of the outcomes sketched above will take place.  But the number of likely outcomes also guarantees that fallout from the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus will be one of the most important developments in international relations not only in 2010 but for many years to come.