Turkey’s role in the Nagorno Karabakh war: a potential resource for peace



Currently, negotiations on Nagorno Karabakh (NK) are in a deadlock and it looks like the situation is not going to change soon.i The decade-long impasse of top level negotiations is the result of the interplay of several internal and external factors. It is hard to foresee any positive initiatives coming from the parties due to the lack of trust between Armenia and Azerbaijan, weak domestic leaderships, nationalistic feelings and the current military buildup (RFE/RL, 2013; Gagnon, 1994-95, p.135). Additionally, in the NK case, two of the OSCE fundamental principles, territorial integrity and self-determination, are in conflict and finding a compromise between the two is hard (Mychajlyszyn, 2001, p.209). Moreover, the Minsk Group’s task is only to facilitate the dialogue between the parties, and not to draft a peace plan (OSCE, 1995-2013). Therefore a breakthrough spurred by greater involvement of foreign states is more likely to happen. Foreign actors have many cards to play to force the parties to come to an agreement. They can, for example, put pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan by imposing sanctions or resort to diplomatic isolation.

For all the above-mentioned reasons, this paper argues that the great potential for the solution of the NK war lies in external actors’ involvement, especially Turkey’s. The NK issue is low on the agenda of Russia, the US and France, the Co-chairs of the Minsk Group. They are more concerned about their economic situation and the crisis in Syria. This is why regional states should get more involved in the NK negotiation process. They are part of the regional context, they can offer closer economic partnership and greater cooperation as part of the peace deal. Since Russia is one of the Co-chairs, there are only two other regional states left: Iran and Turkey. Greater commitment on Iran’s side is hardly achievable due to Teheran’s international isolation and its exclusion from the Minsk Group. Recent elections may change this situation, but it is too soon to tell.ii

On the contrary, Turkey could enhance, in several ways, its role in the NK peace process. Until June 2013, despite being a member of the Minsk Group, it never played a relevant role in the negotiation process because NK is not a foreign policy priority for Ankara. Increased Turkish involvement in the NK context could help finding a peaceful resolution of the ongoing war and spur regional integration. A peaceful regional context would stimulate trade, it would make the South Caucasus a more reliable transit route, and it could enhance Turkey’s international status. Moreover, Ankara would have the chance to improve its relations with Armenia. This lack of contacts hinders both Armenia and Turkey and it also has a negative influence on the NK negotiation process. To better understand Turkey’s role in the NK dispute one has to analyze its role from the beginning of the conflict.


Turkey’s position on the NK war

The end of the Cold War had a relevant impact on Turkey. On one hand, Ankara has gained new markets and it could present itself as a model for the newly born Muslim Republics (Croissant, 1998, pp.57-58). On the other hand, the dissolution of the USSR made Turkey’s neighborhood less secure and Ankara no longer was the Southern border of the West (Coene, 2010, p.177; Croissant, 1998, p.57 and p.59). In this context the NK war broke out, together with several others,iii making Turkey’s neighborhood even less secure. At the beginning Turkey took a neutral stance, but as the NK conflict went on, it moved to a pro-Azerbaijan position (Cornell, 1998, p.60). It supported Baku’s claim in international fora and  trained Azerbaijani troops, but never directly intervened in the war (Ibid., p.51 and p.60; Ismailzade, 2005, p.5). Turkey could not pursue a completely independent policy in the NK context, since it had to deal with several constraints (Cornell, 1997 and 1998). First of all, as a NATO member it had to respect the organization’s decision of staying neutral (Cornell, 1998, p.63). Secondly, in 1987, Turkey applied for full membership into the European Economic Community and taking part into a war would have hindered such process (Ibid., p.64; BBC News, 2012). Thirdly, the level of trade between Russia and Turkey was already high and Ankara could not afford to jeopardize it (Cornell, 1998, p.64). Such constrains partially played a positive role, preventing the escalation of the NK conflict into a full scale regional war, involving Russia and Turkey (Ibid., p.63). Additionally, Moscow would not have tolerated the emergence of another power that could challenge its regional hegemonic position (Ibid., p.65). Apart from external constraints, Turkey had to respect also its own internal policies. The doctrine of Kemalismiv does not allow Turkey to get involved in other countries’ internal issuesv (Republic of Turkey-Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011). Finally, given Turkey’s limited expertise in mediation at the time, non-Co-chair status (Kasim, 2012, p.100) and tense relations with Armenia, (Cornell, 1998, p.65), Ankara’s low profile in the NK negotiations comes as no surprise.


Perception of the parties

After having presented Turkey’s role in the NK war in general, it is necessary to take into consideration how the parties,vi Armenia and Azerbaijan, perceive Turkey’s involvement in the NK negotiation process. Azerbaijan is sometimes referred to as Turkey’s “smaller brother” (Coene, 2010, p.177). Throughout the years, the two countries have created a stable relationship. In the 1990s, the first foreign firms to operate in Baku were Turkish, but Ankara promoted also cultural initiatives, to underline the similarities between the two states (Ismailzade, 2005, p.3; Coene, 2010, p.177). In 2010, the two countries signed the “Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support” that states that in case of third party aggression, there is a mutual obligation to intervene (EurasiaNet, 2011). Nevertheless, over the years, this close partnership experienced three major setbacks. The first one arose after Azerbaijan’s refusal to recognize Northern Cyprus. Baku’s decision is understandable as recognizing Northern Cyprus would have represented a dangerous precedent for the NK issue (Shiriyev, 2012). The second tense moment was experienced in 2008 after Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Azerbaijan was on Serbia’s side and it vigorously denounced Pristina’s move (Financial Times, 2008). However, Turkey recognized Kosovo’s new status because, in general terms, it supports the emergence of any new Muslim state (EurasiaNet, 2008; Reuters, 2008). The latest setback in time is linked with the signing of the Zürich Protocols between Armenia and Turkey (Shiriyev, 2012). Azerbaijan felt betrayed because the NK issue was not mentioned in the agreements, even though it was what led to the closure of Turkish-Armenian border. (Phillips, 2012, pp.49-51). Baku took several retaliation measures, some like the temporary ban on Turkish music and movies were just demonstrations of strengths. Whereas others, like the signing of a five-year gas supply contract with Russia and the increase in the price of Azerbaijani gas sold to Turkey led to deeper consequences. (Ibid., p.62) This hard line strategy paid off as the Zürich Protocols are not yet into force, as neither Turkey nor Armenia ratified them (Ibid., p.77). The Turkish-Azerbaijani relations overcame these three obstacles and came out stronger than before (Shiriyev, 2012).

Relations, or the lack of thereof, between Turkey and Armenia are a complicated issue, which dates back to 1915, when the Ottoman Empire committed the alleged Armenian Genocide.vii In 1991, when Armenia declared independence, Ankara recognized the new state and the first contacts seemed to be promising (Coene, 2010, p.178). Then the Khojaly eventsviii took place and, as a reaction, Ankara closed the border with Armenia (de Waal, 2003, p.205; Cornell, 1998, p.60). The most serious attempt to normalize relations between the two neighboring states is represented by the Zürich Protocols. Their objectives were the establishment of diplomatic relations, the opening of the borders and the development of bilateral trade (Phililips, 2012, p.59). Several factors undermined the Protocols’ chances of success. Civil societies were not informed of what was under negotiation, the Armenian Diaspora used its lobbying power to fight against this initiative, and Azerbaijan was kept in the dark about the content of the agreements (Ismailzade, 2011, p.7; Phillips, 2012, p.62 and p.100). Further, the Prime Minister Erdogan, who is the most relevant political figure in Turkey, was not directly involved in the process. (Phillips, 2012, p.51) The failure of the Zürich Protocols shows how important it is for Turkey to solve the issue with Armenia, if it wants to play a more active role in the NK peace process. This does not mean that negotiations over NK should include the issue of the closed border between Armenia and Turkey, but that the involved parties have to face reality and find a way to solve their problems. Only once the border issue is solved, they could start cooperating to end the NK war. Up until now, no serious commitment in this sense has been shown by the two leaderships.



Turkey has kept a low profile role in the negotiations for the solution of the NK conflict and in the short term this is not going to change. In the past this was due to internal and external constraints on Turkey’s foreign policy. Today, the greatest impediment is represented by Ankara’s lack of relations with Armenia. As Zartman and Touval (2007) argue, a state can be an effective mediator even if it is not impartial (Ibid., p.439), and this perfectly represents Turkey’s situation. The two scholars believe that even if a mediator is perceived as biased by one party, it could still be crucial for achieving peace, if all parties recognize the benefits that can arose form a pacified environment. (Ibid.) Ankara should link the peaceful solution of the NK dispute with its presence at the negotiation table. Turkey should act astutely and turn the NK situation at its advantage. It should make it appealing also for Armenia to have Ankara as one of the mediators. Important advantages like regional trade agreements, energy projects and the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border should come as rewards for the peaceful resolution of the NK war. At the same time, Armenia and Azerbaijan should act on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. For Ankara’s plan to work, their decisions should not be guided by nationalistic feelings and enmity. A pacified South Caucasus will have a positive impact on trade and on regional cooperation, and that it will also improve states’ status in the international arena.




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