Turk-Arm III: Opportunities and Risks in Turkish-Armenian rapprochement

April 23, 2009
In my previous post, I talked a little bit about the issues that have been dividing leaders from Turkey and Armenia since Armenia became independent in 1993. Now I'd like to discuss some of the pitfalls that the normalization process needs to avoid.
Following Armenia's independence from the USSR, Turkey and Armenia never established diplomatic relations. In 1993, Turkey sealed its border with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan, against whom the war over Nagorno-Karabakh had begun to turn. Thus, while it is possible to fly directly between Turkey and Armenia, the fact that the border between Turkey and Armenia is sealed means that ground traffic between the two countries must be transited through Georgia.
Perhaps more importantly from the perspective of the United States, oil--and the Baku-Ceyhan ("Jay-han") pipeline in particular--also runs through Georgia, as neither Turkey nor Azerbaijan would countenance the possibility of the pipeline running through Armenia. (Is anyone still wondering why the neo-cons were so quick to decry Vladimir Putin as the second coming of Hitler--the position's been open since we hanged their last 'Hitler'--during the Russia-Georgian conflict last August?)

It's a long way from Baku to Ceyhan, especially if you have to get there via Georgia
Oil, Azerbaijan, and the United States are all important in this equation. Call me a cynic, but my personal suspicion is that Turkey began going down the road to reconciliation with Armenia (back in late 2007) at least partly at the behest of the Bush administration, looking to pull Armenia out of the hands of Russia--from whom Armenia purchased $800 million worth of military hardware in 2008. In the 'Great Game' that the Bush administration was waging with Russia in the lands of the former Soviet Union, transforming Armenia into an American client state offered the tantalizing possibility of not only swiping yet another former Soviet republic out of Moscow's orbit, but also planting American influence right on Iran's doorstep. Even better, making friends with Armenia would mean that the delivery of oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey would no longer depend on Georgia, where eight months ago Russian tanks stood just twenty-five miles outside of Tbilisi.

But what about Azerbaijan, whose territory is presently being occupied by Armenia? I think both the United States and Turkey overestimated the extent to which Baku could be taken for granted. Remember: Turkey and Azerbaijan may have close cultural connections, but they have practically zero historical ties. Other than a few brief stints on the Ottoman periphery, Azerbaijan has always been a province in someone else's empire. 

Azeris might feel culturally closer to Turks, but what they really want is a satisfactory solution to Nagorno-Karabakh. It's hardly a surprise that, amid rumors that Turkey and Armenia were making progress towards a separate peace, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev would not only refuse to attend the "Alliance of Civilizations" summit that Obama attended in Istanbul, but also made a point of letting it be known that he talking to Russian president Dmitri Medveden while Obama was meeting with Turkish president Gul in Ankara.
The biggest risk, however, to ignoring Azeri concerns in pursuing the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations centers on the maintenance of peace in the Caucasus.
Whereas the best-case scenario for the currently developing Turkish-Armenian normalization process would definitely be the development of relations among all three countries and a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh satisfactory to all sides, the worst-case scenario would be an isolated Azerbaijan deciding to take matters into its own hands by using its petro-wealth to beef up its military and take back its lost territories on its own.
And when you think of it, Azerbaijan doesn't have a lot of cards to play when it comes to putting pressure on Armenia. Indeed, just last week Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian was quoted as saying that the best venue for solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the Minsk Group--the OSCE committee that has been in charge of finding a solution to Nagorno-Karabakh since 1992. Who knows, maybe the Armenians and Turkey are working on more concrete propsoals, but suggesting that a solution to Nargorno-Karabakh be left to the Minsk Group--which has been working without results for 17 years--hardly sounds like a the plan of somebody who's serious about changing things on the ground anytime soon. 
Azerbaijan might not have a lot of diplomatic support, but it does have a lot of money to spend on weapons and a lot of angry refugees still living in crummy hotels and dormitories who would love the idea of getting back at the Armenians. It's also worth remembering that, in a country where the government and the opposition are diametrically opposed to one another on practically every issue, the recent warmth in relations between Turkey and Armenia has achieved nearly the impossible by bringing the government and the opposition together. Threatening war with Armenia, particularly after what Azeris are viewing as a stab in the back from Turkey, could help to wipe the opposition off the map if declining oil revenues and a worsening global economy begin to morph into anti-government sentiment in Azerbaijan further on down the line. And don't forget, Aliyev gets to extend his term automatically if Azerbaijan finds itself in a 'state of war.' Not that such shennanigans would be necessary right now, but Aliyev's continued hold on power in Azerbaijan shouldn't be considered a sure thing. In a worst-case scenario, a war could justify a political crackdown, if necessary, and in any event if Azerbaijan loses Turkish diplomatic pressure on Armenia the folks in charge in Baku might conclude that military reconquest is their only hope of ever getting the lost territories back.

Frankly, I really don't like bringing up all of these ugly scenarios during a time of genuine optimism regarding two countries which have for too long treated one another like entrenched enemies. So here's hoping that Armenia and Turkey are serious about not simply opening a border, but also including Azerbaijan in a process that will normalize relations between all three countries. If they play their cards right, this could be something great for the whole region.   

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