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Turkey: Ankara Enjoys Growing Influence

Boston, 18 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A flurry of diplomatic activity in recent days has demonstrated the growing importance of Turkey to affairs in Russia, the Caspian region, and the Middle East.

This month, Turkey has exchanged diplomatic visits with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Russia, continuing an intense level of engagement that was heightened by the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Istanbul two months ago.

In one sense, the mission of Turkish President Suleyman Demirel to Tbilisi was needed to keep the agreements signed at the OSCE meeting on track. Georgia has lobbied for a series of changes to the pacts for the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, despite warnings from Azerbaijan that the amendments would be unacceptable.

Georgia has sought to avoid liability for environmental damage from possible spills, while seeking pipeline fees, a share of the oil, and compensation for land along the route. Demirel succeeded in extracting a pledge from President Eduard Shevardnadze that the demands would not derail the pipeline project, although it is hard to say whether all the issues have been permanently resolved.

What matters more is Turkey's growing influence as a focal point for regional strategic policies. Immediately after the mission to Georgia and a visit to Ankara by Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, there followed a visit from Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and another from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov.

The concerns of each country vary, but the series of meetings have at least some common threads. Turkey's rising importance is clearly one of them, demonstrated by Demirel's call for a stability pact in the Caucasus and his concerns about a potential flood of refugees from the war in Chechnya.

Closely related is the second thread of planned petroleum pipelines in the region, all of which lead to Turkey, either for consumption or transit. Russia in particular has been bending its efforts toward accommodating its historic rival, recognizing Turkey both as the region's fastest growing energy market and as a route for oil exports through the Bosporus. That route competes with the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline route.

Turkish influence on Russia may operate on several levels, not the least of which is the kinship Turkey shares with ethnic groups in Central Asia and the Caucasus. That relationship may be inseparable from the direction of energy exports from the region after years of Russian control.

Moscow may also view Ankara's economic power as considerable, in light of the fact that Russian access to International Monetary Fund loans has been limited since the start of the war in Chechnya. Profits from energy exports, including exports to Turkey, have allowed Russia to finance the war without international loans. While the IMF has withheld funds from Russia, it approved $4 billion in new credits to Turkey last month.

With several costly plans in the works to deliver more gas to Turkey, Russia appears to be proceeding from the assumption that it must not only supply, but also serve the Turkish market. President Demirel took care this week in voicing concern over Chechnya while continuing to term it a Russian internal affair. But if Moscow is concerned about the call for a stability pact, it may be a measure of Ankara's economic power and its clout with Russia's neighbors on its southern frontier.

The third thread of influence is related to the changing landscape in the region, as a result both of the war in Chechnya and the on-again-off-again peace talks between Israel and Syria. Iran's Kharrazi is reportedly concerned that Turkey could be used as a base for Israeli warplanes, a worry that is bound to be heightened by isolation if a peace deal is reached with Damascus.

Iranian and Turkish officials have also been shuttling back and forth since last month as a result of Tehran's claims that it has completed its part of a pipeline to sell gas to Turkey under a 23-year deal. Turkey has been negotiating to avoid up to $200 million in penalties for failing to accept Iranian gas under a take-or-pay contract, because it has yet to build its part of the line.

Iran's bid to gain leverage over the gas market can hardly be separated from its desire to be heard on the security issue. Tehran is likely to remind Ankara that it would be wise to diversify its supply routes in case Russian and U.S. pipeline plans fail.

Turkey has also made diversification efforts on its own by agreeing to buy electricity from a $500 million power project on the territory of its former adversary Greece, using Russian gas and services from U.S. and Italian firms. The surprise warming of relations with Greece following Turkey's earthquake last year has helped to open the door to European Union membership.

Whether by accident or design, events seem to be bringing a higher degree of influence to Ankara. It also appears increasingly well positioned to use its diplomatic prestige in the Caspian region to see that its energy needs are met.