1 May 2010
Russia’s “Return” to Caucasus and Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement
The busy agenda of Caucasus in 2009 was peace, which, in 2008, was hitting the headlines across the world with Russian-Georgian War. Eventually, concrete steps were taken in Turkish-Armenian talks mediated by Switzerland. The talks, accelerated by “Football Diplomacy,” were welcomed by two superpowers – Russia and the U.S. — whose regional interests do not overlap per se. With their visits to the region, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lawrow urged sides to be courageous and confident.
The U.S. support for Turkish-Armenian rapprochement wasn’t a surprise. After August war in Georgia, the new U.S administration seemed to prefer not to confront Russia, and decided to execute its Caucasus plans via Turkish hand. A potential Turkish–Armenian compromise could possibly conduce to the solution of Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Thus, the West could have had the chance to save Armenia from Russian domination to a certain extent and have more secure and favorable energy corridor through Armenia instead of Georgia, which is under threat at any time.
What was surprising was Russia’s support for the process, although its interests coincide neither with Turkey nor the U.S. (the West). Since the demise of Soviet Union, Russia has seen the Caucasus as its “back yard” or with former Primer Minister Prikamov’s words “blijnee zarubejie” – “near abroad.” In this sense, it can’t be argued that Russia would accept the domination of a regional (Turkey) or global power (the U.S.) in the Caucasus. In fact, Ankara-Tbilisi-Baku (West-East) line, made up by Demirel, Aliyev and Shevardnadze and backed up by the West, had limited Russia’s influence significantly in the region. Actually, dealing with its own economic and political problems for a long time, Yeltsin’s Russia was not in a position to do something about that. In spite of all the pressures by Russia, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline was established by the support of the West and Turkey. On the other hand, Russia closely cooperated with Yerevan and Teheran trying to establish a North-South cooperation line.
But suddenly Russia’s hands started to strengthen. Georgia’s poorly calculated intervention into Ossetia gave Russia the opportunity to get its hands on the region. Russia not only shocked Georgia within two days, but also recognized the independence of the rebel regions, Ossetia and Abkhazia, and thus increased the number of its allies to three together with Armenia, and more importantly succeeded in paralyzing the Tbilisi link of Ankara-Tbilisi-Baku line. Everybody would recall how trapped felt Ankara and the West during Georgia crisis. This was actually an admonitory process for Baku. Russia was within an ace of pulling Baku apart from the West. And this opportunity was given through Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process.
There are two major reasons why Russia supported Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. The first one was to improve its post-war image and to seem a pro-peace country. The second was to cause a rift between Azerbaijan and Turkey and thus wholly eliminate Ankara-Tbilisi-Baku line. During Turkish-Armenian negotiations that held behind closed doors, Russia was busy with instigating Baku against Turkey. Ill-communication between Ankara and Baku was serving to this end, indeed. It was very late when Baku heard an official statement from Ankara.
In the meantime, Azerbaijanis were provoked against Turkey through pro-Russian media in the country. It was as if Turkey suddenly realized the severity of the issue. While aiming at reducing the pressure from outer world regarding genocide issue by getting along with Armenia, Turkey faced the risk of loosing its closest ally – Azerbaijan. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan hastily visited Azerbaijan and pledged not to open the borders with Armenia until there would be a solution to Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and so tried to dispel anxiety of Azerbaijani authorities and public. The effect of the speech is open to question, but the fact is that Russia achieved in pulling Azerbaijan toward itself, even if not pulled it apart from the West and Turkey.
Despite the fact that the protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations and re-opening the borders signed, it seems that the process is doomed to fail. Both Turkey and Armenia are far from the dialogue they achieved last year and the chance of ratification of protocols in the congresses of both countries decreases. It is evident that Russia is the most profitable side in this process. Russia kept Armenia under its influence and managed to alienate Azerbaijan from Turkey and thus from the West more than ever before. Although recently both Turkish and Azerbaijani officials underline that the relations of two countries are very strong, it seems the relations suffered last year will not be recovered easily.