New Security Configuration In The Caucasus

Vladimir Radyuhin

The Hindu
Oct 20 2009

The milestone accords Turkey and Armenia sealed this month to normalise
their relations after a century of hostility have dramatically changed
the geopolitical configuration in the Caucasus.

They have opened the way to a new security arrangement in the region
on the basis of the emerging Russia-Turkey alliance.

At an October 10 ceremony in Zurich, the Foreign Ministers signed
protocols setting a timetable to establish diplomatic ties and reopen
the border, which has been closed for 15 years. The importance of
the event was underlined by the presence of U.S. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, French Foreign
Minister Bernard Kouchner and the European Union’s Javier Solana.

The accords, subject to ratification, however, face formidable
opposition in both Turkey and Armenia. The Turks are angry at Armenia
continuing "occupation" of 14 per cent of the territory of Turkey’s
ethnic ally Azerbaijan in the predominantly Armenian enclave of
Nagorno-Karabakh, which split from Azerbaijan in the wake of an
inter-ethnic conflict in the early 1990s. In 1993, Turkey sealed the
border and severed all contacts with Armenia over the conflict. For
their part, the Armenians are angry over Turkey’s denial of the
massacre of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1919.

Bad feelings on both sides may slow down the normalisation process,
but will hardly derail it as Turkey and Armenia have vital stakes in
ending their historic enmity. Turkey stands to gain influence in the
Caucasus and it will smoothen its path to membership in the European
Union. Landlocked Armenia, blockaded by Turkey, on one side, and
Azerbaijan, on the other, will gain through trade links with Turkey,
a large economy closely tied to the EU. It would also become a transit
trade route from Central Asia to Turkey and then to Europe.

Reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia is likely to facilitate the
settlement of the territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The presence of the top diplomats from the U.S., Russia and France —
the co-chairs to the OSCE Minsk Group, which mediates in talks on
Nagorno-Karabakh — at the signing ceremony was quite symbolic in
this regard.

Both Russia and the U.S. are interested in the Turkey-Armenia
settlement. Russian business, which effectively controls the economy
of Armenia, will benefit from the opening of the Turkish border with
Armenia, as Russia is also the biggest trading partner of Turkey. In
another gain for Russia, the role of its foe Georgia as the main
transit route for Armenian trade will greatly diminish once Turkey
opens up its border. Russia has already reaped the first benefits on
the energy front. Within days of the Turkey-Armenian agreement, its
gas monopoly Gazprom signed a contract with Azerbaijan’s state energy
company SOCAR on Azerbaijani gas supply to Russia. The deal came as
Baku denounced the Turkey-Armenian pact as running "completely against
the national interests of Azerbaijan," because it was concluded without
a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. It is for the first time
that Azerbaijan will sell its gas to Russia, which could undermine
the West’s plan to build the Nabucco pipeline to ship Caspian and
Central Asian gas to Europe bypassing Russia.

The U.S. hopes that Turkey opening its doors to Armenia would help
wean it away from Russia. Today, Armenia is Russia’s only strategic
ally in the Caucasus. It is a member of the Russia-led defence pact of
six former Soviet states and hosts a major Russian military base on
its territory. For U.S. President Barack Obama, the Turkish-Armenian
rapprochement offers a way out of a tight spot he put himself in
during the presidential campaign when he promised support to a
proposed Congress resolution denouncing the slaughter of Armenians
during World War I as "genocide." This would have damaged U.S.

relations with Turkey, which is of strategic importance to America
as the only NATO country bordering the Caucasus.

Russia has its own game plan for the region. Last year, Moscow
readily embraced Ankara’s proposal for a Caucasus Stability and
Cooperation Platform. The CSCP, based on Turkey’s concept of "zero
problems with neighbours" policy, is promoted by Ankara as a mechanism
for political dialogue, stability and crisis management in a region
covering Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. For Turkey,
the plan is an instrument to win a bigger foothold in the Russian
backyard. Russia further consolidated its position as the dominant
player in the Caucasus, signing last month defence pacts with
Georgia’s breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, whose
independence it recognised after routing Georgia in a five-day war
in August 2008. The agreements allow Russia to station 1,700 troops
in each region for the next 49 years, with the option of extension
for five-year periods thereafter. Nevertheless, Moscow seems ready
to cede some of its influence to Ankara in order to achieve a bigger
strategic objective: create a regional security mechanism that would
exclude outside players, above all the U.S. and the NATO, whose poking
only creates trouble, as it happened last year when the U.S.-armed
and trained Georgian military attacked South Ossetia.

Even though Turkey is a NATO member, Moscow has appreciated Ankara’s
independent foreign policy in recent years that runs counter to
U.S.interests on a range of regional issues. Ankara would not let the
U.S. use its territory for the war in Iraq and refused to join the
West’s Russia-bashing over the war in South Ossetia. Turkey’s ambitions
of a regional superpower clash with the U.S.’ aggressive push in the
Caucasus. Turkey does not want the Black Sea to become a NATO lake and
has resisted U.S. pressure to renegotiate the 1936 Montreux Convention,
which restricts the passage of non-Black Sea nations’ warships through
the Bosphorus Straits. During the Russian-Georgian conflict, Turkey
invoked the Montreux Convention to block two big U.S. warships from
sailing into the Black Sea on the pretext of delivering humanitarian
aid to Georgia. While officially Turkey continues to support Georgia’s
territorial integrity, it has quietly moved to develop contacts with
Abkhazia, with a senior Turkish diplomat visiting the regional capital
Sukhumi last month.

When Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid a state visit to Moscow
earlier this year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a
straightforward proposal to set up a Russian-Turkish axis. "The
August crisis showed that we can deal with problems in the region by
ourselves, without the involvement of outside powers," Mr. Medvedev
told a joint press conference. The Turkish leader effectively agreed,
pointing to "substantially close or identical positions" the two
countries took on "an absolute majority" of international issues.

In a joint declaration adopted at the summit, Russia and Turkey
expressed support for Turkey’s CSCP initiative, noted the "identity of
view" on security and stability in the Black Sea region and reaffirmed
their commitment to the Montreux Convention.

There is no denying that Russia and Turkey are historical rivals in
the Caucasus, having fought 11 wars lasting 44 years in the past. They
are still competing for influence in the region, but shared interests
make them allies too. Russia meets 80 per cent of Turkey’s natural gas
needs through the Blue Stream pipe laid on the seabed across the Black
Sea. Turkey has backed the Russian proposal to build a Blue Stream-2
pipeline, which, together with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline,
would make Turkey a major energy transit hub for Europe and Israel.

A distinct cooling in Turkey’s relations with the U.S. over Iraq and
the Kurdish problem, and with Europe over its granting EU membership
to Cyprus and refusal to admit Turkey has further pushed Ankara
towards Moscow.

Normalisation between Turkey and Armenia and an improving outlook
for a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan will remove the last
roadblocks to a regional security set-up on the basis of the Turkish
CSPC proposal. Moscow is already looking to extend its cooperation with
Turkey on regional security beyond the Caucasus. On a visit to Istanbul
last year, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointedly emphasised that
Russia and Turkey shared similar views on "what needs to be done for
a conclusive settlement in Iraq" and on "the necessity of peaceful
political resolution of the situation regarding the Iranian nuclear

Chances of the new regional security configuration in the Caucasus
becoming a reality will greatly depend on whether the U.S. goes
along or tries to torpedo the project by encouraging its allies,
Georgia and Azerbaijan, to reject the initiative.

In joint Russian-U.S. efforts to promote normalisation between Turkey
and Armenia there are grounds for optimism. Mr. Medvedev hailed it as a
"good example of our [Russian-American] coordination in international
affairs." The very possibility of the ongoing reset in relations
between Russia and the U.S. being projected to the Caucasus will
enable Moscow to play on Turkey’s fears of being left in the cold
and help get the best deal from both.

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