Analysis

Summary: As the only NATO member to border the Caucasus. Turkey control the Bosporus and Dardanelles, through which Russia and other Black Sea countries conduct most of their trade. The conflict between Georgia and Russia offers Turkey a unique opportunity to bolster its regional clout, to check Russian and Iranian influence, and to help secure the flow of Westernbound oil and natural gas from former Soviet Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Will Turkey’s leaders rise to the occasion?

Crisis in the South Caucasus: Turkey’s Big Moment?
by Amberin Zaman*
ANKARA — Turkey is the sole NATO member that borders the Caucasus. It control the Bosporus and Dardanelles, through which Russia and other Black Sea countries conduct most of their trade. The recent crisis between Georgia and Russia, offers Turkey a unique chance to bolster its regional clout, to check Russian and Iranian influence, and to help secure the flow of Western-bound oil and natural gas from former Soviet Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Will Turkey’s leaders rise to the occasion? Turkey’s proposal to create a “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform,” a scheme calling for new methods of crisis management and conflict resolution, is a step in the right direction. Yet, there’s one glaring hitch. Turkey does not have formal ties with one proposed member: Armenia. And without Armenia, Turkey’s hopes of becoming a regional bigwig aren’t likely to go far. Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, floated the idea of a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform during a string of meetings with Russian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani leaders over the past week. Critics have dismissd the initiative as an empty gesture that will allow Prime Minister Erdoğan to burnish his credentials as
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a statesman and hog the international stage. The plan (which also talks about cooperation in tourism and trade) is vague and lacking in substance. No wonder Erdoğan’s respective hosts embraced it so effortlessly, the cynics add. Not everyone agrees. Many believe that the “Platform” could serve as a useful cover for mending fences with Armenia, a step that is clearly in Turkey’s interests but which faces formidable diplomatic obstacles. In 1993, Turkey sealed its border (though not its air links) with its eastern neighbor after Armenia occupied a chunk of Azerbaijan following a nasty war over the Nagnorno-Karabakh enclave. OSCE-sponsored talks to broker a peace have failed so far. Keeping the Turkish border shut has hurt exports to Central Asia and limited Ankara’s regional influence, yet it has not humbled Armenia into returning occupied Azerbaijani land. Instead, it has spawned a flourishing black market trade in Turkish goods carried via Georgia by a handful of oligarchs who have propped up successive Armenian strongmen and pushed Armenia further into the arms of Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, flush from its recent oil earnings, an increasingly bellicose Azerbaijan has been muttering

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Amberin Zaman has been the Turkey correspondent for The Economist since 1999. She has also been a regular contributor to the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Telegraph of London. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Analysis

about retaking Nagorno-Karabakh by force if need be. All of this creates the regional backdrop for the current conflict in Georgia, which has starkly illuminated the need for all sides to rethink the status quo. The need for new strategic thinking was never more clear than last week, when Russia blew up a rail bridge near Tbilisi, thereby disrupting Georgia’s main rail network that runs to Armenia and Azerbaijan. This disrupted Azerbaijan’s oil exports, which had already been hit by an explosion earlier this month in the Turkish section of its main export pipeline running from Baku to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Yet a proposed extension of the pipeline looping through Armenia might have saved the day. Landlocked and poor, Armenia is looking even more vulnerable. Most of its fuel and much of its grain comes through Georgia’s Black Sea ports, which are virtually paralysed. The capital city of Yerevan is already experiencing a serious fuel shortage, where many filling stations have halted sales of gasoline and supplies of key commodities such as jet fuel and wheat are dwindling. Armenia is reportedly trying to secure additional fuel supplies through Iran, its only remaining neighbor whose border remains open. This is the moment for Turkey to step forward. By re-opening the rail line linking the eastern province of Kars to Armenia, which then hooks up with both the Georgian and Azeri grids, Turkey could both expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid to Georgia’s war-ravaged north and help avert the looming crisis in Armenia. Azerbaijan would benefit too. But its leaders, who oppose the slightest contact between Turkey and Armenia, are sure to disagree. Turkey’s ethnic and religious ties with its Azeri cousins have long held sway over Ankara’s regional policy. But there seems to be growing recognition in official circles that isolating Armenia is hurting Turkey without necessarily helping Azerbaijan. For one, there are renewed worries that a congressional resolution calling the mass slaughter of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 genocide may be passed should the Democrats win this November’s presidential election. Relations between Turkey and the United States, already bruised by Iraq, would sink to new lows. Whereas if Turkey and Armenia were to make peace beforehand, the resolution might be buried for good. Besides, relations with Armenia would make it easier for Turkey to push for a deal on Nagorno-Karabakh. Mindful of such rewards (and with plenty of nudging from

America) Turkish and Armenian diplomats have been holding secret talks in Switzerland over the past few months that could lay the ground for reestablishing diplomatic ties. Turkey has several key demands. The first is that Armenia declare that it has no territorial claims on Turkey. The second is that Armenia shelve its backing for its diaspora’s campaign for international genocide recognition and allow a commission of historians from both countries investigate the events of 1915 instead. Armenia’s pragmatic president, Serzh Sarkisian, has responded positively to both. And upping the ante, Sarkisian invited his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül to a football World Cup qualifier between Turkey and Armenia to be played in Yerevan on September 6. Azerbaijan is deeply unhappy, and President Gül has yet to respond. As ever, all eyes are turned to Turkey’s influential army, which trained and armed Azeri officers during the NagornoKarabakh war. In a hopeful sign, pro-establishment newspapers that tend to reflect the generals’ views have commented favorably on the secret talks after they were leaked. More significantly perhaps, the habitually meddlesome top brass has not uttered a word. Gül may well decide to travel to Yerevan. The question may then become whether the Turkish leader will take the train from Kars or fly.
Amberin Zaman, Correspondent, The Economist
Amberin Zaman has been the Turkey correspondent for The Economist since 1999. She has also been a regular contributor to the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Telegraph of London.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany, on the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.

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