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June 19, 2009
Summary: Even though Turkey has long pursued status quo-oriented policies toward the Caucasus, the “Five Days War” opened a period of revision in Turkish foreign policy. Starting with the so-called football diplomacy, Turkey adopted a new approach toward Armenia. However, after some openings toward normalization of relations with this country, which reached a peak with the declaration of the April 22 road map, Turkey slowly returned to it’s initial policy. This piece analyses how the implications of the process that started with the “Five Days War” between Russia and Georgia led Turkey to develop an opening toward Armenia which would take Turkey to it’s initial position after a 360 degrees turn.
360 Degrees Diplomacy
by Dr. Mitat Çelikpala*
ANKARA — Most of the recent analysis on Turkish foreign policy revolves around the question of whether Turkey is developing a new foreign policy vision different from its traditional outlook. In this context, it is possible to come across different images of Turkey across the spectrum from a so-called imperial power being eschewed in the context of its neoOttomanist policies to a partner pursuing a “zero-problem policy with its neighbors,” undertaking a “constructive role in the resolution of regional and global problems,” and being a producer (rather than a recipient) of regional security. Of the regions elaborated in these analyses, the Caucasus has had a special place especially since the August 2008 “Five Days War” between Russia and Georgia. Issues including the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Russia, the proposal to establish the Stability and Cooperation Platform for the Caucasus, and the declaration of a road map for rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia are regarded as reflections of Turkey’s new foreign policy stance. The atmosphere created by all these initiatives has led to the belief that Turkey is undertaking an unprecedentedly active and constructive role in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, in this context of rising optimism, it
becomes increasingly crucial to draw attention to the question of whether this activism is the result of a new foreign policy vision with long-term assessments or if it is rather a continuity of traditions based on muddling through different interests. This piece aims to evaluate Turkey’s policies toward the Caucasus in the light of this dilemma. Turkey in the Caucasus Even though Turkey has long pursued status quo-oriented policies toward the Caucasus, the “Five Days War” opened a period of revision in Turkish foreign policy. The sudden changes in the regional balances following the outbreak of war have reinforced the resolve of Turkish decision-makers to take a more active role in the Caucasus. The catastrophic effects of the war on regional dynamics were mitigated through high-level visits to Moscow and the proposed establishment of the Caucasus Platform. With this, Turkey intended to contain the negative effects of the war and to prevent its regional interests from being harmed. As Turkey’s gateway to Azerbaijan and thus to Central Asia, Georgia has long been regarded as a key actor for the establishment of regional balances in favor of Turkey. Regional initiatives, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
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Dr. Mitat Çelikpala is an expert on the Caucasus, the Black Sea region, and Turkish-Russian relations. He is an associate professor of international relations at TOBB Economy and Technology University. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).
oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, have been the basic parameters of Turkey’s efforts to create a favorable environment in the Caucasus. In the end, Turkey’s intention to secure its reach to Azerbaijan led to the pursuit of policies with the objects of supporting Georgia and anchoring that country in Turkey as well as the West. This attitude toward Georgia left Turkey vulnerable to the pressure of the North Caucasian diaspora, especially the Abkhaz in Turkey. Yet, Turkey resisted these pressures in the context of the importance attached to Georgia. However, following the Russian decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regional dynamics have begun to change. Domestic instability in Georgia, and developments in Turkish-Russian relations to some extent, may lead to new opportunities for Turkey. Even though it is not reasonable to expect that Turkey could recognize these entities, it can wisely be argued that trade relations as well as direct sea and air transport can be established with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the not-so-distant future. What is striking, considering the central position Georgia has had in Turkey’s policies toward the Caucasus so far, is that Turkey should have undertaken a more active Georgiacentered stance in the post-war period in the Caucasus. Instead, Turkey has developed an indifferent attitude toward developments in Georgia. This largely contrasts with the image of Turkey presented by Turkish decision-makers as an active, problem-solving player in the Caucasus. The policy of Turkey not to be involved in recent developments between Georgia on the one hand and Russia, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the other (notwithstanding the proposal on the establishment of the Platform for the Caucasus) can be regarded as a result of the difficulty in balancing the competing interests of the United States and Russia. This difficulty led Turkey to adopt a new approach toward Armenia, which started with the so-called football diplomacy and proceeded with the declaration of a road map. This new approach has more to do with the intention of Turkey to re-establish regional balances in favor of itself rather than the discourse to provide regional stability and peace in the Caucasus. The normalization process that started in the immediate aftermath of the August events can be seen as an attempt to secure the capability to maneuver in the Caucasus, once lost with the outbreak of instability in Georgia.
It can also be said that the new opening, which developed at an unexpected rate following Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s visit to Armenia, has been taken under the influence of parameters including relations between Turkey and the United States (expected to improve during the Obama Presidency), multi-dimensional relations between Turkey and Russia, and the intention of Turkey to strengthen its presence in the Caucasus. This opening has been emphasized to such an extent that developments in other regions, especially the Middle East, seemed to be put aside by Turkish policymakers. The immediate progress has been helped by convictions that the new opening is consistent with the interests of Yerevan, bogged down under the strains of domestic and foreign policy issues, as well as the expectation that catastrophic developments in the Caucasus can be handled in a manner acceptable to Azerbaijan. The rapid pace of the opening toward Armenia can also be related to the Washington-centered “April Syndrome” of Turkey and the conviction that Turkey has a diplomatically superior position vis-à-vis Armenia rather than the intention to give an end to conflicts in the Caucasus. The slowing of developments by late April and the recent stalemate in relations between Turkey and Armenia seem to prove this argument. Despite the arduous policies pursued by Gül, Turkey’s government seemed to remain indifferent toward the issue of opening toward Armenia. This indifference came to an end with the declaration of the April 22 road map. Following the declaration, hopes for an opening of the border rapidly increased among circles that support a process of normalization. However, this activism ceased once again after harsh statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in response to the April 24 speech of U.S. President Barack Obama. In addition, when Erdoğan tied progress on the normalization process to the condition of favorable steps to be taken by Yerevan in Nagorno-Karabakh and achievements of the Minsk Group, this represented a return to the traditional stance toward the Caucasus. The opening toward Armenia and the declaration of a road map have turned into a foreign policy maneuver, which represented the abandonment of new activism in favor of the traditions without achieving any substantial improvements in the bilateral relations. The most drastic consequences of the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia have been felt in the context of the relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan. The well-known motto of “one nation and two states” has increasingly come
under stress during April. The visits of some Azeri Parliament members to Turkey, the harsh criticism of the opening process by opposition within Turkey, and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Moscow before Turkey in his official program drew both Turkish and Azeri public opinions into a discussion unprecedented in the post-independence period. This opening also bred fears in Turkey that Azerbaijan could turn its face to Russia and abandon its relationship with Turkey and the West. During this process, the fact that the leaders of both countries preferred to communicate via media instead of coming together, and did not do anything but reiterated the traditional statement of “trust us,” was also striking. Silence on the side of Erdoğan until Obama’s visit and speech in Turkey only served to further increase tensions. On the other hand, Erdoğan’s statements in the immediate aftermath of April 24 have been met with surprise by moderates who support the normalization process with Armenia. The prime minister’s increasingly hardened statements and subsequent visit to Baku on May 12 have once again affirmed Turkey’s return to its traditional position. Moreover, when Ahmet Davutoğlu, the architect of the Turkish foreign policy and the new Turkish foreign minister, made his first official visit to Baku on May 25 and gave statements similar to Erdoğan, a return to the traditional stance in the Caucasus seemed to be reinforced. All these developments, as well as the reactions coming from Armenia, illustrate that the so-called openings in the Caucasus have done nothing but returned Turkey back to its traditional position with a turn of 360 degrees. In conclusion, the implications of the process that started with the “Five Days War” of last summer have been felt dramatically in Turkish foreign policy. The Turkish claim to achieve a breakthrough in the resolution of regional conflicts can be seen to cause a new activism on the side of the Minsk Group. In the case that a solution is reached under the auspices of the Group, Turkey’s contribution in this regard can be seen as having sped up the process. Nevertheless, throughout this process, Turkey could not achieve to secure itself a seat at the negotiation table. Also, the process could not manage to transcend obstacles at the discursive level but only strengthened suspicions of Azeri public opinion toward Turkey. Besides, the normalization process and the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border continue to be
conditioned on any improvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Therefore, the whole process seems to be left once again to the course of the Azeri-Armenian relations, as it has been.
Dr. Mitat Çelikpala, Associate Professor, TOBB Economy and Technology University
Dr. Mitat Çelikpala is an expert on the Caucasus, the Black Sea region, and Turkish-Russian relations. He is an associate professor of international relations at TOBB Economy and Technology University. He also gives lectures at the Turkish Military Academy and Turkish National Security Academy. Dr. Çelikpala is an academic adviser to the strategic research centers of both the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Turkish Armed Forces. Before joining the academia, he served at the Turkish National Security Council.
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