15 Dec 2010
Armenian-Turkish Rapprochement as a Factor for Decreasing Tensions in the South Caucasus:Why was the Opportunity Missed?
The South Caucasus is in a political deadlock for many reasons, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict being one of the most important ones among them. The football diplomacy of Armenia and Turkey of 2008–2010 opened a possibility for the region’s countries to get out of that deadlock. However, this chance was not used, and the potential for improvement of the situation in the region due to normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations still remains open. The domestic problems of Turkey are the principal reason for this failure, but it seems that Azerbaijan’s efforts aimed at undermining the rapprochement process also played an important role. As a result, the region may remain in this dangerous deadlock for an indefinite period of time.
The Nagorno-Karabakh problem has become a factor that is acting negatively on every aspect of life in the South Caucasus. Armenians and Azeris present mutually exclusive demands for the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and the positions of the conflicting sides do not seem to be moving closer. Recent rapprochement efforts between Armenia and Turkey might encourage a move away from the deadlock and help Turkey become a more active, neutral player in the South Caucasus. Unfortunately, this opportunity was not used as Turkey favored Azerbaijan in its policy on Karabakh. Below is my view of the problem in more detail.
- The Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh declared the creation of an independent nation, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Azerbaijan, which considered this region as its own, initiated a war in response. Very soon, this war included the Republic of Armenia, which was supporting its fellow Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. During the war, one of the tools Azerbaijan used was the communications blockade on Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, as most of those communications were running through Azerbaijani territory. In particular, during the Soviet period, 85% of Armenia’s external cargo turnover was done via the railroad passing through Azerbaijani territory.
- Turkey, which was initially relatively neutral to this conflict (in late 1992, it allowed transportation through its territory of wheat and flour to Armenia, thus breaking Azerbaijan’s blockade), supported the Azerbaijani policy of blockade in April 1993. Thus, Armenia has been blockaded from two sides, east and west.
- During the next 16 years, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict did not move towards a resolution, in other words towards a defined status of this region acceptable to all three parties involved, namely Armenia, the “de facto authorities of Karabakh” (representing a nation that is not officially recognized by any state), and Azerbaijan. Moreover, the blockade of Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey have had a negative impact on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution efforts, as the conflicting sides need mutual trust to reach a compromise. The blockade is the worst condition for such a trust to develop, and Azerbaijan makes every effort to strengthen the blockade, which was, as this author believes, completely useless from the point of view of helping the above mentioned conflict settlement process.[i] The most obvious evidence is Azerbaijan’s refusal to withdraw snipers from the contact line, although the mediators—the OSCE Minsk Group co—have repeatedly suggested this. The suggestion was also recently supported by Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General.[ii]
- The possibility of opening the Turkish-Armenian border for transportation and trade, which was realistic had Turkey implemented the provisions of the Turkish-Armenian protocols signed in Zurich on October 10, 2009, would be a unique chance to break this viscous cycle. Normalization with Armenia would lead to a decrease in tension in the whole region, since the Turkish-Armenian contacts would greatly enhance mutual trust in the region. Moreover, normalization would enable Turkey to play a more active role in the South Caucasus, including the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. This does not mean that Turkey would become less pro-Azerbaijani, but an open Turkish-Armenian border would stimulate positive processes in the region, including Armenian-Azeri contacts. The role of Turkey in the region would be sounder, and it could have the place it deserves as the biggest, most powerful nation there.
- Turkey’s position is the main reason—if not the only one—why this opportunity of decreasing tension in the South Caucasus region was missed. This problem has several aspects, including the fears of the ruling party, losing the next general elections, and Turkey’s real and possible problems with Armenia, although this country is twenty times smaller than Turkey population wise. Armenia, on the contrary, would have been happy to open its borders and normalize trade with this powerful neighbor (Turkey has imposed an embargo on imports from Armenia). Obviously, it was Turkey’s demand to include a provision in the protocols whereby normalization and the opening of embassies required parliamentary ratification of these protocols, whereas the usual procedures of establishing normal relations between any two countries are a prerogative of the governments. Thus, there is sound ground to believe that while singing the protocols, Turkey was not ready to implement them.
- There are also grounds to conclude that Azerbaijan’s policy was a strong factor to support Turkey’s unwillingness to implement the protocols on normalization with Armenia. Azerbaijan’s reaction to the Zurich protocols was that opening the Turkish-Armenian border contradicted the interests of Azerbaijan. Baku’s officials proved able to push their ideas into Turkey’s home political sphere, thus normalization with Armenia was largely seen in Turkey as a “betrayal against brothers.” This has moved the Turkish government farther away from the idea of normalizing relations with Armenia and starting a new policy in the South Caucasus.
Thus, the current deadlocked situation may continue for an indefinite period of time. Turkish-Armenian problems, including the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, are far from being a priority for Turkey. Azerbaijan, which has significant influence on Turkey, sees the blockade of Armenia as its principal tool for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Yet, Armenia is prepared and continues to prepare itself for the continuation of the blockade, meaning that it will have no influence on the policy of either Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh. As a consequence, mutual trust will not increase in the South Caucasus and the region will remain in the current dangerous situation for a long time to come.
[i] In my assessment, the only result the blockade and the trade embargo have brought is the increased number of the poor in the region, and not only in Armenia. For example, the existing ban on imports of electricity from Armenia makes poorer not only the people of Armenia, but also those in Azerbaijan and Turkey, who need electricity but cannot get it for political reasons. As a result, they too have become angry and less inclined to find compromise and peace with their neighbors. This is, by the way, more evidence that the blockade has been useless from the point of view of its declared purpose, supporting the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
[ii] The UN Secretary General made this statement during a meeting with Edward Nalbandian, the Foreign Minister of Armenia, last September. Day.az (2010, September 27). Ban Ki-moon supports withdrawal of snipers from contact line. Retrieved from http://www.news.az/articles/armenia/23406