1 Sep 2010
The Present Situation of Armenian-Turkish Relations and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Resolution: Is There Shared Commitment to Settlement?
The Russo-Georgian war in August 2008 underlined the vulnerability of the existing routes for transportation of hydrocarbons from the South Caucasus to Western markets. The war, lasting for five days, interrupted the operation of the railway and pipelines running via Georgia (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum and Baku-Supsa), so hydrocarbons produced in Azerbaijan could not be transported. The war and Russia’s cutting of gas supplies via Ukraine in January 2009 also stimulated the US and European Union to accelerate the negotiations on the Nabucco pipeline project and to intensify the mediation efforts in Armenian-Turkish relations and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. Eor the Nabucco pipeline’s successful development, it is crucial that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict be solved and Armenian-Turkish relations be normalized as soon as possible, so Armenia would not represent a potential source of instability.
So, after the Russo-Georgian war Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül accepted Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan’s invitation to visit Armenia and attend the soccer World Cup qualifier match between the national teams. Many Armenian observers were skeptical about the so-called “soccer diplomacy.”: In their view, Sargsyan had been advised to propose it by Russian officials. After the seriously flawed presidential elections on February 19, 2008 and the following violent crackdown on opposition protesters on March 1, 2008 that elevated Sargsyan to power, with continuing oppression against political opponents, Sargsyan badly needed to secure international support for the regime.
However, Western actors became enthusiastic about the prospect for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation. The US and EU viewed the soccer diplomacy favorably, as an opportunity to promote rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. Indeed, Armenian-Turkish negotiations that followed, with mediation by the Swiss, seemed to be fruitful. In October 2009, the Armenian-Turkish protocols were signed, supposedly opening the way for normalization of bilateral relations, including establishment of diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, the Armenian government was meeting little international criticism for its non-democratic practices.
Sargsyan’s predecessor, Robert Kocharyan, criticized the soccer diplomacy, while the nationalist ARF-Dashnaktsutiun party left the governmental coalition and tried to launch mass protests. The opponents of Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, who also favored keeping the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, could be viewed as acting as “bad cops,” improving Sargsyan’s international image of a realistic politician trying to put an end to a decades-long enmity. On the other hand, the main opposition force, the Armenian National Congress (ANC) led by former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, Sargsyan’s principal rival in the 2008 election round, also criticized the soccer diplomacy. Ter-Petrossian warned that Turkey would not normalize relations unless Armenian forces are withdrawn from Azerbaijan’s territory and blamed Sargsyan for his alleged intention to make unilateral concessions in exchange for external legitimacy. In their public statements, ANC leaders denounced Western actors, treating them with bitter sarcasm for backing Sargsyan. This also unintentionally contributed to improving Sargsyan’s image.
Soon after the signing of the protocols, Turkish officials, indeed, asserted that the ratification would depend on progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process, in other words the return of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control. But then, during the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Moscow in January 2010, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin declared that attempts to normalize Armenian-Turkish relations and solve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue simultaneously should be abandoned. It became quite clear that conflict resolution depends on Russia’s will to exercise pressure on Armenia, and that, in turn, depends on Azerbaijan’s readiness to make certain concessions. If Azerbaijan agreed to sell produced natural gas to Russia, pressure on Armenia might lead to a deal on Nagorno-Karabakh, but that would result in stronger Russian dominance in the South Caucasus and might endanger Europe’s energy security.
Keeping the status quo in the region might be preferred by Russia, as Azerbaijan insisted on diversifying its gas exports. In June 2010, during a working meeting in Turkey with Erdoğan, Putin stated that no pressure should be applied to the parties conflicting over Nagorno-Karabakh. It is hardly a coincidence that soon afterwards Russian managers of the Armenian railway decided to dismantle four non-operational railway stations, including Ijevan station near the border with Azerbaijan. That station would have crucial significance if traffic could be resumed. It may be concluded that despite all speculations about progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution, Russia has affirmed that the issue may not be solved by means of negotiations and set a dilemma for Azerbaijan: either to tolerate keeping the status quo for an indefinite amount of time, probably decades, or to attempt to solve the issue by force.
Recently, since June 2010, the number of violations of the cease-fire agreement on the line of contact has been unusually high. Possible large-scale fighting presents serious danger, as it would lead to a severe deterioration of the situation. Besides potential bloodshed, fighting could result in interruption of hydrocarbons exports from Azerbaijan and, consequently, a sharp rise in oil and gas prices — realization of the Nabucco project would be postponed for an indefinite time in that case. Therefore, besides being disastrous for both Armenia and Azerbaijan, fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh would have dire consequences for the international markets. At the same time, Russia and Iran would benefit, either politically or economically.
Peace and stability in the region, as well as reliability of hydrocarbons transportation projects, largely depend on the readiness of the US and EU to suggest such a comprehensive deal that both Armenia and Azerbaijan may feel safe to settle their dispute and to cooperate with the West and each other. However, with the West’s relatively minimal involvement in the region (particularly because it is occupied with solving other problematic issues), the hopes to “reset” relations with Russia (although Russian authorities, apparently, continue to view the relations with the West as a zero-sum game) and, last but not least, preference for engaging mostly the Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities rather than promoting democracy, do not allow the building of mutual trust and confidence among citizens of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Trust and confidence are irreplaceable components of peaceful conflict resolution.