The Caucuses conflict explained

Middle East Times

By Tulin Daloglu

Of the many troubles plaguing the Greater Middle East, none is more complex than the one opposing Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Or should that read the conflict between Turkey,
Azerbaijan and Armenia:

Turkey’s decision last week to normalize its relations with Armenia has caused understandable upset in Azerbaijan – a neighbor and ally of Turkey — whose territories in the mountainous Karabakh have been occupied by Armenia since 1991.

Baku sees this action as a threat, and its growing distrust of Ankara has the potential to grow into the kind of tension that led Turkey to refuse the United States’ request to grant U.S. troops jumping point for their invasion of Iraq. Washington maintained that Ankara was fully aware of U.S. policy in the region, but the truth is that the U.S. took Turkey’s cooperation for granted. And now, Ankara is repeating the same mistake with Azerbaijan.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul claims his government has been keeping the Azeris abreast of his country’s talks with Armenia. Yet Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has publicly asked Turkey to tell him what was going on. Of particular importance to the Azeris is if Turkey is about to strike a deal over the disputed territories which Yerevan claims belongs to Armenia and which Baku claims as part of Azerbaijan.

Turkey closed its border after Armenia’s 1993 offensive into Kelbajar, notes Novruz Mammadov, Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser. “Our territories remain occupied,” he told the Middle East Times in in a recent telephone interview – adding that he wondered “why Turkey is taking such an unjust stance against Azerbaijan. The occupation of our territories has nothing to do with the (Armenian) genocide claims or that they’re up for sale.”
Amid rumors that the Minsk Group, headed by a co-chairmanship consisting of France, Russia and the United States, is about to bring closure to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Washington has been a strong supporter of a rapprochement between Turkey and the Armenians.

The Minsk group also includes Belarus, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Turkey as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Mammadov, however, says he has little faith in the Minsk Group, where he says Armenians have skillfully delayed progress. His concern, he explains, is that because of Turkey’s new relationship with Armenia, Azerbaijan may never get its territory back.

Meanwhile, some are calling the normalization of relations between Ankara and Yerevan “absolute failure of public diplomacy,” one which is focused on trying to prevent the White House from calling the tragic events which took place in 1915 under Ottoman rule “a genocide.”

During the presidential campaign President Obama promised American Armenians that he would recognize the “genocide,” but he has since backed away from that pledge. And one has to wonder at what cost to Turkey.

Technically, Ankara and Baku should be expected to find a way to work through this latest rough patch, just as Ankara and Washington are working through difficulties in their relationship. But if Turkey’s ruling government fails to repair things with the Azeris, and if Russia continues to take advantage of the Azeri reaction, things could end very badly. If the emotional bond between Turkey and Azerbaijan is broken, Azeris will see Turkey as no different than Russia.

Furthermore, Aliyev is no Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia. His father, Haydar Aliyev, was once a leading member of the Soviet ruling elite – and one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s serious competitors. The Moscow-educated Aliyev knows how to work with the Russians, and how flexibility can deter Russian aggression.

Shakashvili, on the other hand, has relied too heavily on the U.S. and not shied away from provoking Russia. Moscow invaded parts of Georgia last August, and since then, the global economic crisis has turned Russia’s economy upside down.
More recently, Moscow recalled its troops from Chechnya. Many analysts argue that Russia is no longer capable of financially supporting foreign military deployments. That said, Moscow does not represent a military threat to any of the former Soviet republics in the region. What it wants, though, is to monopolize gas exports and its supply routes throughout the region.

Azeris hold no grudge against Russia, though Moscow would not be off the mark ina assuming that Aliyev would side with Russia against Turkey, but only as a last resort.

Armenia is Russia’s most loyal political and economic ally in the Caucasus. But Moscow’s declining economy seems to have played a critical role in Yerevan’s decision to normalize relations with Turkey – which came the day before the White House’s traditional statement on Armenian Remembrance Day.

The Turkish economy is faring relatively well, compared to others in the region that are struggling to survive in the global economic crisis. Thus far, Russia seems to be supporting Yerevan and Ankara normalizing their relationship. But Moscow will show its true colors when it sees how the U.S. benefits from the normalization.

President Obama backing away from his promise to recognize the Armenian “genocide” has had no effect in the region; no one actually expected him to use the “g” word. But Azeri leaders believe that excluding them from the discussion of their occupied territories between Yerevan and Ankara is “unacceptable.”

Ankara has begun a new ball game in the Caucasus. Turkey has offended Azerbaijan, creating the impression that Turkey is acting solely in its self-interest with no regard for its emotional bond with Azeris. As a result, Baku has distanced itself from both Ankara and Moscow. Whoever succeeds in winning over Aliyev will determine the faith of this very complicated terrain.

Tulin Daloglu is a Turkish journalist based in Washington, DC.

Categories: Middle East Times