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South Caucasus Presents Tangled Web Of Shifting Allegiances

  • Brian Whitmore

Turkish soldiers guard a road at Dogu Kapi, on the Turkish-Armenian border, on April 15.

Turkish soldiers guard a road at Dogu Kapi, on the Turkish-Armenian border, on April 15.

Anticipation is in the air in the Armenian village of Margara.

Roads are being repaired. Visitors are inquiring about real estate prices. Talk abounds of new hotels, shops, and restaurants.

A sleepy border hamlet of just 1,500 people, Magara is the site of the only bridge linking Armenia with Turkey -- a bridge that has not been used since Ankara closed the border and cut off diplomatic relations with Yerevan in 1993 over the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Now, with talk of an impending Armenian-Turkish rapprochement reaching a fever pitch, locals like 70-year-old Demaxia Manukian are hopeful that their isolation is at an end.

"The more consumers there will be, the better it will be for us. Infrastructure will improve -- the streets and the water system," Manukian tells RFE/RL's Armenian Service, stressing that the town will need to be spruced up in order to impress all the new visitors if the border opens.

"After all, it's a matter of prestige. That's why it has to get better."

The thaw in relations between Ankara and Yerevan, which began shortly after Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian took office a year ago, has picked up steam in recent months with high-level backing from both the United States and Russia.

The issue takes on added relevance this week, as Armenians on April 24 commemorate the 94th anniversary of the onset of mass killings of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the end of World War I -- a longstanding source of tension between Turkey and Armenia.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry announced this week that the two sides had agreed to a road map to normalize ties. In testimony before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Ankara and Yerevan for taking "bold steps" toward reconciliation, adding that "normalizing relations and opening their borders will foster a better environment for confronting that shared, tragic history."

But the complex Turkish-Armenian relationship does not exist in a vacuum. It is but one thread in a tangled web of grievances and mistrust that have long plagued the South Caucasus -- and sparked a sometimes fractious race for influence among the international powers drawn by the lure of energy and strategic location.

Historical Animosities

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Turkey was the first country to recognize Armenia's independence, but the warm neighborly relations were short-lived.

Turkey and Azerbaijan, both predominantly Muslim countries, are close allies. When Armenia occupied Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region, Ankara broke off relations with Yerevan and closed the border in solidarity with its ally.

Azerbaijan remains deeply suspicious of a Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and has hinted that it would scuttle the regional balance if its interests are not safeguarded.

Moreover, Yerevan's longstanding claim that the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I constituted genocide infuriates Ankara and has long been a roadblock to normalizing ties.

The Turkey-Armenia road map, brokered by Switzerland, comes as Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to be edging closer to a resolution of the Karabakh standoff, with apparent help from Moscow.

Both the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders traveled to Russia this week for talks with officials, and both offered carefully worded, but optimistic, assessments of the talks.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan, which fears it will be the odd man out in a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, has turned a cold shoulder to its traditional allies in Ankara in recent weeks, with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev refusing a recent invitation to travel to Turkey.

At the same time, Baku has been cozying up to Moscow.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (right) with Russia's Dmitry Medvedev in Barbikha on April 17
Baku may be seeking to remind Ankara that as the sole energy supplier in the South Caucasus, it is free to choose its friends, and its issues. Analysts say Turkey is trying desperately to persuade Azerbaijan that an opening to Armenia is in everybody's interests.

"The Turkish strategic perspective and the message that they constantly articulate to Baku is that over the longer term, a normalization with Armenia will actually enhance Turkish leverage and influence in the region -- which, from the Turkish point of view is good for Ankara and good for Baku," says Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Center for National and International Studies.

"This is a Turkish strategic agenda based on Turkish national interests. It is not to curry favor with Brussels, nor is it to please Washington. But in the long run from a Turkish perspective, it's good for the region, it's good for Azerbaijan, and it's good for Turkey."

Baku, however, appears unconvinced.

During his visit to Moscow on April 17, Aliyev said he saw no obstacles to cutting a deal to sell natural gas to Russia's Gazprom. Aliyev added that Baku hoped to diversify its natural gas exports, most of which are currently sent west to Europe via Turkey.

Such a move would be a severe blow to the proposed U.S.- and EU-backed Nabucco pipeline, which would transport gas from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to Europe via the South Caucasus, bypassing Russia.

Baku has also warned that an open Turkish-Armenian border "could lead to tensions in the region and would be contradictory to the interests of Azerbaijan."

Shifting Alliances

Analysts say Aliyev is attempting play the gas card to get the best possible deal in a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Specifically, Baku is seeking Russian support for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.

A Karabakh resolution would be a feather in Moscow's cap as it seeks to reassert itself in its former Soviet territories. But a far greater draw -- for Moscow and all the international powers keeping toeholds in the South Caucasus -- is energy.

The South Caucasus' role as a transit hub for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia to Europe is casting a long shadow over the ongoing process as Russia and the West seek to control these crucial energy routes. Ilgar Mammadov, a Baku-based political analyst, says "everybody is playing a sophisticated game."

After the Armenian-Turkish road map was announced on April 22, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that "the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations must proceed in parallel with the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied lands of Azerbaijan."

But Mammadov says Baku's strategy has risks, as it could push Azerbaijan even "farther into the hands of Russia" and away from the West.

"Baku is trying to use the advantage of its geopolitical location to influence the position of its European and American partners. But if the Russians respond to this policy in a very material way, like pulling Armenian forces back from some of the occupied territories, I think the foreign policy orientation of this regime in Baku may become irreversible," Mammadov says.

If the Russians respond to this policy in a very material way, like pulling Armenian forces back from some of the occupied territories, I think the foreign policy orientation of this regime in Baku may become irreversible.
The moves toward Moscow by Baku, which until now has enjoyed a degree of independence due to its energy wealth, are being watched nervously in Georgia, whose ties with Russia have sunk in recent years, bottoming out during the five-day war over South Ossetia in August.

With no energy resources of its own, and an international partner -- the United States -- that has grown more accommodating of Moscow in recent months, Georgia may be in the position to suffer most in the event of a resurgence of Russian influence in the region.

Armenia, which has the strongest traditional ties with Moscow despite its relative lack of resources, may prove a more equal partner if the border with Turkey is opened and its commercial isolation ends. In this way, Russia has a vested interest in seeing the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement move forward, and may be using the Karabakh process to help nudge it along.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza -- who is one of three co-chairmen of OSCE-sponsored mediation on Karabakh -- stressed that Washington sees the Armenian-Turkish reconciliation and a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement as "separate tracks." He added, however, that negotiations on Karabakh are gaining momentum.

"I honestly can say that I feel more than ever a constructive spirit and that we are actually entering a new phase, I hope, of the negotiations," Bryza said. "The presidents spent a year getting to know each other a bit and knowing each other's positions. And now I feel we are moving to a new phase with a deeper more detailed discussion of the remaining elements of the basic principles that need to be resolved."

Football Diplomacy 2.0

Analysts say, however, that Turkish-Armenian reconciliation will likely precede any settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Sabina Freizer, director of the Brussels-based The International Crisis Group's Europe program says many Caucasus-watchers are pointing to October, when Sarkisian is due to visit Turkey to watch a World Cup qualifying soccer match between Armenia and Turkey, as a possible date to close the deal.

"I am quite optimistic and I believe that if the border is opened and diplomatic relations are established this will change things fundamentally in the South Caucasus. I personally believe that at this point the two sides seem to be close enough that the border should open quite quickly," Freizer said. "But of course the timing is very political. One date that people are talking about is during President Sarkisian's visit to Turkey, if it occurs in October. That might be a good time to open the border."

If an agreement is reached in time for Sarkisian's visit, it would provide a tidy conclusion to the "football diplomacy" that the Armenian president began in September, when he hosted Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Yerevan to watch the last match between the two national teams.

While the United States has strongly backed Turkey and Armenia normalizing relations, the momentum is also causing some political discomfort for U.S. President Barack Obama.

During a visit to Turkey earlier this month, Obama encouraged the talks between Ankara and Yerevan, saying they "could bear fruit very quickly."

The recent progress, however, will make it difficult for Obama to make good on a campaign promise to Armenian-Americans to recognize the 90-year-old mass killings as genocide. Such a move now would infuriate Turkey and potentially scuttle any deal to open the Armenian border.

But back in the border village of Margara, residents say they are ready to move beyond painful historical grievances.

Three of Demaxia Manukian's uncles perished in the mass killings, but he nevertheless says he is ready to move on.

"There are Turks and there are Armenians. The Turks are human beings, too. They rock their children in their cradles just like we do," Manukian said. "But when politics get injected into this, that is the danger."

RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani services contributed to this report

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