Vol. 2, No. 9 (May 01, 2009)

If Turkey reopens its border with Armenia: What it might mean and what it won’t

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Turkey’s rapprochement with Armenia and especially the publication of the five-part “road map” for future relations between Ankara and Yerevan have sparked much anger in Baku with some people viewing this Turkish move, in the absence of significant progress on ending the Armenian occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory as a betrayal and others predicting that it will force Azerbaijan to re-orient its foreign policy away from Turkey and the West and towards Moscow.

Such reactions, perhaps understandable under the circumstances, require at least three correctives: First, it is critically important to consider exactly what the road map means and how it is likely to be implemented given the statements of Turkish leaders underscoring their continued support for Azerbaijan.  Second, it is equally important to recognize what this move by Turkey and Armenia does not change in the South Caucasus, however dramatic a reading some are inclined to give it.  And third, it is worth calling attention to the fact that the changes this road map could lead to do not in every case work against the interests of Azerbaijan but may in fact create opportunities for Baku to achieve its goals.

Only by considering each of these three realities can Azerbaijan hope to find a way to navigate in a future which is neither entirely transformed nor completely the same and thus take advantage of the situation rather than being caught like a deer in the headlight and assuming that there is nothing to be done except to get angry or to radically change its relations with its key interlocutors in the region and beyond.

First of all, everyone concerned with evaluating the latest moves by Turkey and Armenia needs to remember the following: Neither Turkey nor Armenia signed the road map; they simply agreed to it as a text for future discussions, points repeatedly made by the president and prime minister of Turkey, both of whom have been at pains to say that nothing in it points to a change in Ankara’s policy toward Azerbaijan.  Moreover, Turkey and Armenia had their own compelling reasons for moving in this direction, reasons that had little or nothing to do with Azerbaijan – however much Azerbaijanis may naturally have focused on the consequences of the road map for themselves.  

Ankara, for example, clearly hoped to prevent the US Congress or President Barak Obama from officially declaring that the events of 1915 in Anatolia were “a genocide,” a hope that has been at least partially realized.  And Yerevan was interested both in gaining another transportation and communication route to the world in order to improve its economic situation and also – and quite possibly more important from its perspective -- in highlighting that Yerevan’s policies are not equivalent to or a direct manifestation of the views of the Armenian diaspora.

That has two important consequences that Azerbaijani and other analysts should attend to.  On the one hand, announcing a road map does not mean that all of its provisions will be implemented or that any of them will be implemented soon.  Instead, as other “road maps” around the world have shown, it creates a new forum for discussion, but it does not prevent any of the players in the region – including Azerbaijan – from pressing their case or mean that such players cannot block and or shape the path forward.  And on the other hand – and this is the most important reality of all as far as Azerbaijan is concerned – the fact that Turkey and Armenia announced a road map rather than a treaty or other signed agreement almost certainly means that neither government is in a position to realize the declarative language of the road map.  To the extent that is true – and evidence for this is certain to grow in the coming days – Azerbaijan and other countries will have enormous opportunities to press their respective cases, blocking some or all of the provisions of the road map or modifying them in ways that will work to their benefit.

Second, and equally important for Azerbaijan’s consideration of this road map, it is important to remember what this accord does not change.  It does not change the constellation of forces in the South Caucasus, it does not change the international community’s support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan as the basis for a resolution of the conflict, and it does not open the way for Armenia to become an economic powerhouse and thus to be an even more independent actor in the South Caucasus than it has been up to now.

Thus, the conclusions of some Azerbaijani commentators that this action requires Baku to reorient its foreign policy seem at a minimum overstated and more likely simply wrong.  President Ilham Aliyev has taken pride in pursuing what he calls “a balanced foreign policy,” one that sometimes nods in one direction and then in the other.  Those who argue that what Turkey and Armenia have done requires a wholesale shift in Baku’s approach away from Turkey and the West toward the Russian Federation are thus not only ignoring the facts on the ground which suggest little is going to change in the short term but also calling into question their own government’s approach.

Obviously, exploring relations with Moscow on a wide variety of issues is not wrong.  It is both consistent with Baku’s past policies and is useful, as long as this effort is taken on the basis of a cool consideration of realities rather than as the result of an emotional response to a road map that may or may not lead anywhere anytime soon.  The same approach should govern Baku’s relations with all other countries, including Turkey and even Armenia, however angry some in the Azerbaijani capital may be about past actions or future possibilities.

And third, in the longer term, it is important to think about what the road map, if it were fully implemented and if the border between Azerbaijan and Turkey were opened, would in fact mean for Azerbaijan – especially because while there are some aspects of the road map Baku will certainly oppose, successfully or not, there are others including the opening of the border that Azerbaijan could exploit to its benefit rather than viewing the entire notion of the road map as a kind of geopolitical defeat.

Azerbaijanis assume that the opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey would have only negative consequences for their country.  On the one hand, they believe, it would reduce the pressure on Yerevan to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and to withdraw from Azerbaijani territory.  And on the other, some of them appear convinced, it would signal a serious rupture of the special relationship Azerbaijan has always assumed it has with Turkey, a relationship described in both countries as “one nation – two states.”  

But it is worth asking whether the opening of the border by itself will have either of those effects.  However much the opening of the border or the fulfilment of the other parts of the road map may help Armenia, it is important to reflect on three ways in which these actions could work to Azerbaijan’s benefit.  First of all, a rapprochement between Armenia and Azerbaijan will destroy much of the linkage between Armenia and its diaspora.  For Armenia, Turkey is a neighbor; for the diaspora, it is an existential question.  If this linkage is severed or at least much reduced, the diaspora will not play the role in the US and Europe that it has played up to now, and Azerbaijan will be able to take advantage of that to increase its influence there.

Moreover, such a rapprochement will have the effect of reducing the influence of Moscow in Yerevan by giving the Armenian government another interlocutor who may be in a position to play an even greater role in its national future.  While that could lead some in Yerevan to become more stubborn in negotiations on the occupied territories, it is likely to have just the opposite effect.  On the one hand, Moscow not Yerevan has had the greater interest in opposing any resolution of the Karabakh dispute.  Indeed, the Russian government has intervened whenever it appeared that Azerbaijan and Armenia might reach agreement to prevent that from happening, given that Moscow officials recognize that Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus will decline if the conflict is resolved.

On the other hand, an Armenian rapprochement with Turkey works to Azerbaijan’s benefit in yet another way.  As Yerevan certainly understands, Ankara is not going to proceed very far down the path laid out in the road map if Armenia does not make concessions on the occupied territories in Azerbaijan.  Given Armenia’s interest in breaking out from its current geographic isolation, Yerevan will thus have an interest in doing just that and will be less constrained by Russia or its diaspora populations from taking the necessary steps.

And finally, there is another aspect to all this that some in Baku appear to have forgotten in their anger that Turkey has taken this partial and, for Azerbaijanis, unexpected step toward Armenia: The road map may actually have the effect of allowing Armenians to become more comfortable with Turks, something that, given the principle of “one nation, two states” that Baku is so interested in defending, could make them more comfortable with Azerbaijanis as well.  To the extent that happens – and such a change will require much time – the road map that Turkey and Armenia have agreed to but not yet signed or moved forward with could become a road map for Azerbaijan as well, however unpalatable the sudden shift in Ankara’s position may now be for some in Baku.