The Return of Turkey
№3 2009 July/September

The South Caucasus graphically illustrates the theory of the
cyclic development of history. Once every 100 years, the region
becomes a scene of clashes between great powers that seek to change
the alignment of forces there. For example, at the beginning of the
19th century, St. Petersburg [Russia’s capital at the time – Ed.]
took control of the region and incorporated it in the Russian
Empire. At the dawn of the 20th century, Russia neutralized the
British Empire’s efforts to extend its own influence to the South
Caucasus. Finally, in the 2000s, Moscow has been opposing similar
attempts of the United States. The active phase of the revision of
the boundaries of zones of interest usually lasts 20 to 25

The five-day war in the Caucasus in August 2008 was the
culmination of a long period of heightening tensions – not only
between Russia and Georgia but also, as many believe (not without
reason), between Moscow and Washington. The war has produced a new
situation, which requires a comprehensive analysis of the roles of
other regional actors, above all Turkey.


The Georgian-Russian war not only gave rise to open
manifestations of the positional struggle between Moscow and
Washington for influence in the Caucasus (suffice it to analyze
statements of Russian and U.S. high-ranking officials during and
immediately after the conflict). Also, the war became a momentous
event as it caused other countries to revise Russia’s role in world
politics, the practice of conflict management, and other

Paradoxically, the outcome of the fighting can be viewed as
advantageous to all the participants in the events.

Georgia has “disburdened” itself of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,
as the unsettlement of the dead-end conflicts with them stood in
the way of its NATO membership. In the eyes of many, Tbilisi has
become a symbol of self-sacrifice for the interests of the West,
and thus it has enlisted international support for itself as a
victim of “Russian imperialism.” Whatever the attitude of the
world’s capitals towards Mikheil Saakashvili personally, they
cannot now deny Georgia their assistance for either political or
moral reasons.

As a result of the armed conflict, Russia has “acquired”
Abkhazia and South Ossetia and has laid a claim to a new role in
global processes, while the destruction of Georgia’s military
infrastructure has significantly postponed its admission to the
North Atlantic Alliance.

Finally, the United States has “obtained” a Georgia that is no
longer overburdened with “frozen conflicts” to establish itself in
the South Caucasus.

Of course, formalizing the new geopolitical status quo will
require some time and effort. In particular, one will have to find
an acceptable compromise between statements about respect for the
principle of territorial integrity and the actual application of
nations’ right to self-determination by the superpowers; but this
seems to be feasible.

After the August war, Russia’s relations with Armenia,
Azerbaijan and Turkey developed in an interesting way. Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a landmark interview in this
respect to Rossiiskaya Gazeta (October 7, 2008). Immediately after
Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,
he hastened to say that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should be
considered separately, as in case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
ethnic cleansing, war crimes and attempted genocide took place.

The minister certainly remembers about the Nagorno-Karabakh war,
unleashed by Azerbaijan, and about pogroms and ethnic cleansings.
He also knows that, unlike Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia is a
member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. But after
Russia’s and the United States’ attitudes to the practice of
proclaiming new states made a U-turn within just a few months
between the recognition of the independence of Kosovo and then
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, such metamorphoses are not

After the “loss” of Georgia, Russia’s hypersensitivity to
Azerbaijan is understandable, because in case of a “loss” of Baku
Moscow will lose not only the ability to control the transportation
of Azerbaijani energy resources but also the chances to extend its
influence south of the Caucasus. A similar situation may also arise
if Armenian-Russian relations change, but Lavrov apparently views
such a turn of events as incredible, since “Armenia is having big
difficulties in communicating with the outside world.”

The minister emphasized that there are “few geographic and
political options” in the current situation. “As soon as the
Nagorno-Karabakh settlement becomes a fact, Turkey will be ready to
help Armenia establish normal ties with the outside world,” Lavrov
said. He pointed out that there remain two or three unresolved
issues which need to be agreed to settle the conflict, above all
the Lachin corridor issue. The hint, coming from the mouth of the
seasoned diplomat, is more than clear: Address these two or three
issues in a way acceptable to your neighbors and you will get a
lifeline from Turkey.

But why is the Russian foreign minister pushing Armenia into
Turkey’s arms? Does he really believe in the Ankara’s “traditional
policy line towards ensuring the right of countries in the region
to an independent search for solutions to problems of the Caucasus
and adjacent regions”? Or does he believe in the future of Turkey’s
Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact? Not at all. Moscow
certainly knows that this is much the same bluff as the program of
proliferating the Communist ideology in the East through Turkey in
former times.

The idea of curtsying to Ankara is fairly simple. Turkey has
unresolved problems with Armenia which is greatly influenced by
Russia. Russia has serious interests in Azerbaijan which is greatly
influenced by Turkey. The solution of Turkish problems does not run
counter to the interests of Russia, and the solution of Russian
problems does not run counter to the interests of Turkey. In other
words, Russia and Turkey have a real opportunity to find common
ground based on mutual interests.

These frameworks of relations harmoniously combine the July
agreement to sell Russia Azerbaijani gas, a simultaneous proposal
to Ankara for participating in Russia’s South Stream gas project,
and the demand of Turkey – as a transit state – for a fair share of
gas from the Nabucco project (an alternative to South Stream).
Although Ankara has finally given up its claim to 15 percent of
Nabucco gas (that would have made the project unprofitable and
hardly feasible), the gas sharing issue has not been resolved and
promises great difficulties in the future.

A disruption of the balance in the region would obviously pose a
real threat to the deepening of Russian-Turkish relations. For
example, it could hamper the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh
conflict in the near future, as either party (Armenia or
Azerbaijan) would remain dissatisfied with any outcome, which would
cause it to seek closer relations with the West (“Georgia-2”
model). It is not accidental that the U.S. does not conceal its
strong interest in settling Armenian-Turkish relations and the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The fact of the conflict’s settlement or
at least a break from the status quo would be much more important
for it than the mechanism or outcome of this process.

The continued U.S. presence, an unprecedented activeness of the
EU, and another Russian-Turkish rapprochement – these are the main
components of the process of redrawing the strategic landscape of
the South Caucasus.


Turkey has never concealed its desire to dominate the South
Caucasus. As a columnist of the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman,
M?mtazer T?rk?ne, wrote on May 22, 2009, the Turkish Army played a
crucial role in shaping the current borders of Azerbaijan. In 1918,
when Turkey itself struggled for the preservation of its statehood,
it sent an army, led by Nuri Pasha, not only to Baku but also to
Nagorno-Karabakh in order to bring it under Azerbaijan’s control by
force. Turkey also played a decisive role when the future of
Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh was decided in Moscow in 1921.
Turkish politicians understood very well the importance of
Nagorno-Karabakh for the distribution of zones of influence in the

Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first
attempt by Ankara to broaden its geopolitical presence in Central
Asia and the South Caucasus failed. The failure in Central Asia was
due to Turkey’s limited economic potential, whereas in the South
Caucasus it was due to the crude methods used by Turkey. For
example, during the Nagorno-Karabakh war (the early 1990s), Turkey
tried to exert pressure on Armenia by moving its troops close to
the Armenian border several times. The threat did not produce the
desired result, and in 1993 Turkey joined the blockade of Armenia
by Azerbaijan, which continues to this day.

Another attempt at an “offensive” was prepared more thoroughly
and included actions on several vectors.

The first vector was European integration. Taking avail of the
new stage in the EU enlargement, which involved countries of
Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey tried to implement its dream of
the 1960s and achieve rapprochement with the EU. Although the
European institutions have repeatedly emphasized the importance of
relations with Ankara, the principled position of some EU members
(especially France) has become an insurmountable obstacle, and
Turkey remains outside the EU enlargement. In addition to many
formal criteria, the EU has announced a set of painful conditions
that Turkey must fulfill to join the European Union – these concern
the reunification of Cyprus, the recognition of the Armenian
Genocide in the Ottoman Empire, and the lifting of the Turkish
blockade of Armenia.

The second vector was active participation of Turkey in all
significant regional economic projects. Turkey has markedly
improved its relations with Georgia and has been making great
efforts to develop and implement oil and gas projects, specifically
the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum
natural gas pipeline, and Nabucco. Ankara has also played a major
role in attracting funds for the economically unjustified
Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi railway project.

By the beginning of the August war, Ankara had already prepared
solid ground for basically new political initiatives. When the war
began, Turkey proposed a Security and Cooperation Platform for the
region. Interestingly, Turkey demonstratively held the first
discussion of this idea with Russia, without prior consultations
with the United States.

Theoretically, the Platform is attractive in terms of regional
stability and the security of the transportation of Caspian energy
resources to Europe. However, it is unfeasible in practice, as
Georgia has refused to participate in the discussion of this idea
before its relations with Russia are settled and because of
Washington’s cold attitude towards the idea that problems of the
Caucasus should be addressed by the states of the region, i.e.
without U.S. participation.

The idea has no prospects, primarily because it lacks principles
and values that would unite the countries of the region. In
addition, Turkey’s sincerity about the settlement of regional
problems raises doubts as it has serious problems in relations with
Armenia. On the other hand, Turkey has a gift for implementing
unfeasible ideas.


After Turkey joined the blockade of Armenia by Azerbaijan in
1993, it set preconditions for establishing diplomatic relations
with Armenia and opening the border with it. To this end, Yerevan
needed to do the following:

  •  give up seeking international recognition of the
  •  recognize the borders of Turkey;
  •  withdraw its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and return to
    Azerbaijan territories adjacent to the Nagorno-Karabakh

For 15 years, Armenia’s position was steadfast: diplomatic
relations must be established and the border must be opened without
any preconditions, after which the parties could discuss any
issues. Several attempts to bring the parties’ positions closer at
confidential meetings failed. In summer 2008, the newly elected
president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, made an unusual move – he
invited Turkish President Abdullah Gul to visit Armenia to watch a
qualifying football match between the two countries for the 2010
World Cup finals. The invitation was accepted a few days before the
match, in late August.

Many analysts pointed out, not without reason, that the Turkish
president accepted the invitation due to the aggravation of the
situation in the Caucasus following the Georgian-Russian war, and
to Ankara’s desire to promote the above-mentioned Security and
Cooperation Pact for the region.

The visit won international attention and approval, despite its
modest results – the two presidents only made a statement on the
need to normalize bilateral relations. However, Ankara immediately
began to use Gul’s visit to Yerevan, which lasted only a few hours,
as the main argument in its proactive foreign policy in all major
areas. It used the situation to enhance its role in the region, to
consolidate its positions on the world stage (in particular with
regard to elections of non-permanent members of the UN Security
Council, the EU enlargement, etc.), to improve its relations with
Russia and the United States, and to prevent new cases of
recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

It was certainly clear that real success in settling the
Armenian-Turkish relations could be achieved only by overcoming
obvious differences in the parties’ positions. There followed
meetings of the countries’ foreign ministers and confidential
discussions of outstanding issues at the level of working groups.
Simultaneously, Yerevan repeatedly declared that the negotiations
were conducted without preconditions, whereas Ankara used flexible
role-distribution tactics.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan made optimistic statements;
President Gul spoke about Ankara’s determination to overcome
regional differences, including those in Turkish-Armenian
relations; while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly
said that the differences would be settled after the settlement of
the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A skilful combination of these
tactics with information leaks and the organization of public
unrest in Turkey and Azerbaijan over the settlement process let
Ankara show both signs of progress at the negotiations and its
determination to preserve the “pre-football match” positions.
Another factor that played into Turkey’s hands was that Armenia
actually froze its efforts to seek international recognition of the

This process lasted seven months until the morning of April 23,
2009, when the foreign ministries of Armenia and Turkey and the
Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland made a joint
statement in Geneva.


Every year, on April 24, Armenia and many other countries honor
the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman
Empire (1894-1923). It has long been a tradition for U.S.
presidents to address Armenian-Americans with a statement
condemning those events.

When a senator, Barack Obama repeatedly used the word “genocide”
when speaking about those events. During his presidential campaign,
he promised to Armenian-American voters that he would not change
his assessment after his election as president; so his 2009
statement was expected with a special interest. During Obama’s
visit to Turkey in early April, one of the American journalists who
accompanied the president asked him a question about
Armenian-Turkish relations, using the word “genocide.” The U.S.
president said that he had not changed his point of view on those
events and that he hoped for a settlement of Armenian-Turkish

A day before the Remembrance Day, on the eve of Obama’s
statement, the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers made the
aforementioned statement, which says that Armenia and Turkey “have
agreed on a comprehensive framework for the normalization of their
bilateral relations in a mutually satisfactory manner. In this
context, a road map has been identified.” The statement and the two
countries’ decision not to publish the road map caused mistrust for
this process in the two countries and heightened tensions in
Armenia’s relations with the Armenian diaspora. While the holding
of secret discussions and negotiations is understandable and
acceptable, a decision not to publish the agreed documents is
contrary to the protocol and tradition. Contrary to the
expectations, President Obama did not mention the word “genocide”
in his Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day statement.

The April 23 joint statement by the Armenian and Turkish foreign
ministers marked the end of the first stage in the regional
redistribution of roles. During that period, Yerevan performed the
function of an indispensable partner playing up to Turkey (the
initiation of the “football diplomacy,” agreement to participation
in the discussion of Turkey’s Security and Cooperation Platform
which has no prospects, the ignoring of Prime Minister Erdogan’s
statements that clearly ran counter to the purpose of settlement,
etc.). But Armenia has received nothing for that.

In contrast, for Turkey, which has extensive experience in using
simulation processes, this stage ended with significant

  • the process of recognition of the Armenian Genocide was
  • the newly elected U.S. president did not use the word
    “genocide” in his April 24 statement;
  •  relations between the Armenian authorities and the
    Armenian diaspora are marked by unprecedented tensions;
  •  Turkey has been elected a non-permanent member of the UN
    Security Council;
  •  Turkish influence on regional processes has markedly
  •  Turkey’s relations with Russia, the United States and the
    European Union have improved dramatically.

The appointments of Foreign Minister Ali Babacan and Chief
Advisor to the Prime Minister on foreign policy Ahmet Davutoglu to
the posts of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister,
respectively, were a symbolic ending to the first stage in the
redistribution of roles in the region. It immediately became clear
that the differences in public statements of the prime minister,
the president and the foreign minister were used to simulate the
role of the creator of a regional security and cooperation


Now, from these new positions, Turkey is entering the second
stage in the strategic redrawing of the South Caucasian political
landscape. Ankara understands that the region is of strategic
importance for the Turkish statehood, and that its absence in it,
as was the case in the times of the Soviet Union, would be a
serious challenge in the future. Therefore, Turkey is now seeking
to diversify and upgrade its instruments of influence on processes
under way in the South Caucasus and other regions, where Russia and
the United States have dominant interests.

There are now good prerequisites for achieving this goal. Turkey
has been elected to the UN Security Council, which has added
political weight to it. Also, it can use differences among the EU
member states over its EU membership prospects to receive huge
“compensatory” benefits. Turkey’s participation in competing energy
transportation projects (Nabucco and South Stream) gives it room
for maneuver. Finally, its attempts to mediate in the Middle East
settlement are very noticeable, considering the impact this
conflict has on global politics.

However, Turkey will have to accomplish difficult tasks in order
to effectively use its achievements.

First, an excessive rapprochement between
Azerbaijan and Russia is not in Ankara’s interests, because it may
reduce its role in the two countries’ relations.

Second, Turkey will tacitly support efforts to
prevent an early settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
according to the U.S. scenario, because its settlement would narrow
Ankara’s range of influence.

Third, Turkey is interested in maintaining the
stagnant state of the process of “settling” relations with Armenia
for as long as possible in order to neutralize negative components
of its own foreign-policy image.

The Erdogan government is faced with difficult problems beyond
the South Caucasus region. There is a growing discontent among
Turkey’s top military brass about the domestic policy of the
pro-Islamic government. Ankara has not yet resolved the Kurdish
issue, exacerbated by the existence and development of a prototype
of Kurdish statehood in Iraq. This means that prospects for the
extension of Turkish influence to the South Caucasus are

Much will depend on the positions of the two superpowers which
have strategic interests in the region – Russia and the United
States. So far, Moscow and Washington have been encouraging Ankara.
For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in early
July after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu:
“Turkey and Russia are playing the most active roles in the South
Caucasus.” At about the same time, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary
of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza,
responding to a request by Greek Cypriot officials to put pressure
on Ankara, said: “We can’t do that, they are super power in the
region. We could do that in the 70s, 80s, and the beginning of the
90s, but now we can’t.”