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Lousy Timing Could Overshadow Turkey's Logical Caucasus Solution

  • Liz Fuller

Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul

Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul

Within days of the start of full-scale hostilities last month between Georgia and Russia, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan floated the idea of a Caucasus stability pact modeled on a 1999 Balkan agreement.

But the diverging geopolitical and economic interests of the proposed five members and the ambiguous status of Georgia's breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia constitute seemingly insurmountable obstacles to such an alliance.

As outlined by Erdogan, the proposed Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact would bring together Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, and Turkey. His stated intention of discussing the initiative with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggests that he envisaged the UN assuming the role of "patron" in the same way as the European Union did for the 1999 Balkan Stability Pact, which came in the wake of the Kosovo conflict.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul endorsed Erdogan's proposal one day later, on August 12, saying the Caucasus pact would be "important for stability in the region" and could encompass a mechanism for addressing and resolving problems, presumably before they escalated into violence.

There are, however, several fundamental differences between the Balkans in 1999 and the South Caucasus in 2008. In 1999, the countries of Southeastern Europe, including the Yugoslav successor states, had a shared interest in integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. Furthering such integration was one of the primary objectives of the Balkan Stability Pact, together with preventing further conflicts in the region; fostering peace, democracy, respect for human rights, and economic prosperity; and stimulating regional cooperation. In other words, membership of the Balkan Stability Pact was intended as a win-win situation for all former adversaries.

Shared Objectives?

By contrast, the five proposed members of the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact have no shared objective or vision that would serve as an incentive for setting aside their differences. On the contrary, in some cases, such as the deadlock between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, their most important policy objectives diverge or even collide, to the point that reconciling them is seen as a zero-sum game.

Even prior to the August war, Georgia considered Russia the primary threat to its stability. Now, having quit the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and severed diplomatic relations with Russia, it would almost certainly make any cooperation, whether bilateral or multilateral, contingent on Moscow retracting its formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ruled out doing. Russia, for its part, has no obvious interest in promoting any regional cooperation that would strengthen Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia economically. Only Turkey would stand to benefit immediately from a mechanism that would, among other things, safeguard the export pipelines that bring Caspian oil and gas to Turkey via Azerbaijan and Georgia. That traffic was temporarily halted at the height of the August hostilities between Georgia and Russia.

Two further factors cast serious doubts over the viability of the Turkish proposal. The first is the Karabakh conflict, given that Azerbaijani leaders have for years said that including Armenia in any regional cooperation projects (such as the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway that is currently under construction) is contingent on resolving that conflict on Baku's terms. In fact, it was the Karabakh conflict that then-Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev adduced as the main obstacle to a regional stability pact when then-Turkish President Suleiman Demirel and his Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze first floated the idea in January 2000.

The second factor is the exclusion of Iran, which aspires to the role of a regional player. Addressing the Georgian parliament in March 2000, then-Armenian President Robert Kocharian advocated structuring the proposed pact on the formula 3+3+2, meaning that Ruusia, Turkey, and Iran as the countries bordering on the three South Caucasus states should serve as "guarantors" of the pact, and the EU and the United States as its "sponsors."

The Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies unveiled in June 2000 a detailed "consultative document" that examined in detail the optimum composition of a Caucasus Stability Pact, what issues it should address, and how it might function. The preface denies that it is modeled on the Balkan Stability Pact, but at the same time notes the similarities (and differences) that then existed between the two regions. The document postulated six chapters, three focusing on relations among the South Caucasus states, including conflict resolution and prevention and establishing a regional-security system; and three focusing on broader regional cooperation that would draw in Russia and the Black Sea and Caspian regions. It did not rule out the inclusion of Iran in a Caucasus Contact Group that would discuss implementation of that proposed agenda, and it took as a given the involvement of such international organizations as the UN, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Window Of Opportunity

Although eminently rational and stuffed with innovative ideas (such as the introduction of South Caucasus Community passports), the working document was not unequivocally endorsed by any of the proposed beneficiaries, although Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba told the co-authors in August 2000 that Abkhazia would like to participate "on equal terms" with the other eight players. Iran for its part rejected the inclusion of the EU and the United States, arguing for the formula 3+3, meaning Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia plus Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

With hindsight, the window of opportunity for formalizing such a Caucasus Pact began to swing shut in the summer of 2004, when Georgia launched its first abortive effort to bring South Ossetia back under its control by military force. That closure could possibly have been reversed but for the confrontational policies and brinkmanship espoused by the Georgian leadership vis-a-vis Moscow, the unwillingness of both Armenia and Azerbaijan to make the concessions needed for an equitable solution to the Karabakh conflict, and the protracted standoff between the United States and Iran.

Meanwhile, the geopolitical balance has changed dramatically since Erdogan resurrected the idea of a Caucasus Stability Pact one month ago. Russia has formally recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and is moving to cement closer military ties with both entities. It could therefore insist on their inclusion in any regional forum. President Gul has paid a landmark visit to Yerevan, thereby paving the way for intensive discussions on the terms for establishing formal diplomatic relations with Armenia. In response both to that anticipated rapprochement and to the chaos unleashed by Georgia's strategic miscalculation in precipitating a war with Russia, Azerbaijan is now tilting away from the West and toward Moscow.

This growing mistrust and incipient polarization suggest that at least in the immediate future, the sole avenue for cooperation among the countries of the region will be bilateral agreements. (Armenia and Turkey signed such an agreement on energy supplies during Gul's September 6 visit to Yerevan.)

In the longer term, Dimitrios Triantophyllou of the International Center for Black Sea Studies was quoted by the "Turkish Daily News" on August 29 as suggesting the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization -- of which the three South Caucasus states, Turkey, and Russia are all members -- could conceivably "lay the groundwork, open channels of communication, and provide the infrastructure" within which diplomats from the five countries could address the political differences between them.

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