Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement and Obama’s Policy in The Caucasus

I have asked Vahan Dilanyan, President of Political Developments Research Center in Yerevan, to write an article for Slovak magazine Euro-Atlantic Quarterly. He was very kind and he agreed. His piece was published in Slovak in 2/2009 edition and you can find it here in English.

The developments from the Russian-Georgian war of last August, to the global financial crisis brought about essential changes in the political situation in the Caucasus. All the energy programs that have until now been implemented in the region, having Armenia debarred from, have always made the Caucasus “incomplete” in terms of regional security. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa pipelines blocked during August war asserted the time for “political railroads, roads and pipelines” is over and that the Caucasus would be more secure if it were full of “economic cross-roads”. In these circumstances, Turkish and Armenian leaders took historic and courageous steps on reconciliation of their over 15 years “closed” relationships. The rapprochement of Turkey and Armenia considers being “a new Door” for resolution the vacuum in the region and creation of good atmosphere for future regional intimacy.

In 1993 Turkey closed the borders with Armenia regarding Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenians. Ankara has always set preconditions on Armenia to opening the borders; withdrawal of Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and refusal of Armenian Genocide done by Ottoman Turks in 1915. Instead, Yerevan has been demanding the opening of the border and the establishment of diplomatic relations “without any precondition.”

Turkey and Armenia intensified their negotiations in August 2007 with diplomats regularly meeting in Geneva to discuss the issues related to reconciliation. With President Abdullah Gul’s visit to Yerevan in September last year to attend a Turkish-Armenian soccer match, and the meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan in January 2009 during World Economic Forum in Davos, indicated the political will of both sides about proceeding with rapprochement. The next meeting of Armenian and Turkish Presidents in Prague on the 8th May 2009 was the “verification of common wishes”; “We agreed to respect the agreement reached,” the Armenian President told reporters.

Since mid 1990s US has worked intensively on establishing a dialogue between Turks and Armenians through meetings among Civil society actors. Both of these two nations entertained big hopes with President-elect Obama. The recent visit to Ankara of US President made obvious that US fully supports the started dialogue between Ankara and Yerevan. “An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. That is why the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.”- President Obama stated in the Turkish Parliament. Back then both Turks and Armenians were impatient to observe president Obama’s annual April 24 statement, the day when the world’s Armenians commemorate the historical tragedy. Barrack Obama’s campaign promise was to call the mass slaughter of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 a “Genocide”.

Turkey is sensitive about Genocide issue. It had several times been stated by Turkish side that the incremental diplomatic progress could well be lost if Obama recognizes Armenian Genocide. The “solution” was found in April 22, when Turkey and Armenia, together with the Swiss mediators, signed a joint statement saying: “The two parties have achieved tangible progress and mutual understanding in this process and have agreed on a comprehensive framework for the normalization of bilateral relations in a mutually satisfactory manner.” In this context, a road-map has been identified. Later on April 24 American President tried to please all sides, by uttering the Armenian term Medz Yeghern”, meaning “great calamity” and praising Turkey’s and Armenia’s peacemaking efforts. The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet writes, Turkey signed the agreement under US pressure to escape from the Obama’s possible pronunciation of the term “Genocide”.

The US State Department welcomed the agreement. “It has long been and remains the position of the United States that normalization should take place without preconditions and within a reasonable timeframe,” said spokesman Robert Wood. It was obvious that the “road-map” was one of the achievements of Obama’s policy in the Caucasus. It essentially refreshed the US traditional position in Turkish-Armenian dialogue process and balanced the recently activated Russian influence over it.

Baku is distressed about Turkish-Armenian rapprochement as it has always had Turkey’s sympathy over Azerbaijan regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. The road-map alarmed the possible end of “one nation-two states” Azeri-Turkish concept as no mention of the Karabakh precondition was there in the agreement. Yet the philosophy of Obama’s security policy considers the opening of Armenian-Turkish borders as a “clue” of re-establishing “Trust” in the region and a stimulus to settle the Karabakh conflict. The “positive mood” created by the Turkish-Armenian roadmap, “gives a new energy to accelerate our work to help resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” said Matthew Bryza, US Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group.

Turkish-Armenian intimacy will also destroy the “century wall” between US and Russia. Armenia is the only country bordering Turkey, a NATO member, where Russia has troops, the only Russian military presence in the Caucasus. After the borders open and diplomatic relations establish, there will be no need of Russian troops presence. It will assist NATO’s enlargement towards the East, and US could see Turkey as a “controller” in the Caucasus. Turkish-Armenian intimacy could positively influence the possible formation of a dialogue between Iran and West taking Armenia’s friendly relations with Iran.

Therefore, this will have a regional re-balancing role on the Russia dimension. The latter though, meets several challenges. Turkey imports 65% of its natural gas and 25% of its oil from Russia, Armenia’s railroads belong to Russian Railways and 70 % of the energy sector of the country also is owned by Russians. These facts create obstacles on Armenia’s entire integration to the West through Turkey. However, the re-opening of Kars-Gyumri rail-road, which could be one of the 1st steps of the road-map, is welcomed by Russia as well. Moscow now supports the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement while it has always been worried about loosing control in the Caucasus if Armenia integrates with Turkey. The August war has “cut” Russia’s “connections” with the South. Now it needs to functionalize “alternative connections”, through Armenia and Turkey, while trying to isolate Georgia. Moscow’s will to buy Azerbaijan’s gas which is considered to become one of the main suppliers for Nabucco, and the intention to realize the Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran railroad project, pursues the same purpose.

It should be noted that the Turkey’s recently activated “eastern initiative” has formed a new environment for Turkish-Russian rapprochement. US should take into consideration the recent actions by Turkey; the fact that Turkey, being a NATO member, kept a neutral position in Russian-Georgian war and the “Security Platform in Caucasus” offered by Turkey without the consent of the United States. However, Obama’s opposition on the war in Iraq, which caused Turkey to turn away from the US, has created a good atmosphere to re-evaluate the American-Turkish partnership. The recent visit of president Obama to Turkey was a big boost towards this end. The US full support on Turkish-Armenian dialogue adds on to the reconsideration of the Turkish role in key energy pipelines. In this case, if Turkey, under US pressure, manages to reach to stabilized relations with Armenia, new routes for natural gas to Europe could open up in the future, decreasing Russian leverage against Europe. The law of Geopolitics highlights that the closeness of two Eurasian Powers’ interests is timely, and that they naturally confront. Thus, Turkey should realize the rapprochement with Russian isn’t long-lasting. Besides, Obama’s new administration should coordinate efforts on keeping up with its traditional image on Turkish-Armenian dialogue formation, which will affect the resolution of other conflicts in the region, create a “window of opportunity” for alternative energy projects and move the Caucasus states towards a common secure future.

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