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Are Predictions That Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement Doomed Overstated?

Does Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan speak for foreign consumption while the prime minister speaks to the Turkish public?
Does Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan speak for foreign consumption while the prime minister speaks to the Turkish public?
The publication in the Turkish daily "Hurriyet" in late March of a report that Armenia and Turkey had reached the final stage of drafting a protocol on the conditions and time frame for establishing formal diplomatic relations and opening their common border gave rise to widespread euphoria and unrealistic expectations that such a deal could be finalized within weeks.

That euphoria was swiftly tempered by skepticism when Azerbaijan, which has historically regarded Turkey as its closest ally, reacted with anger and outrage. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reportedly even threatened to suspend natural-gas exports via Turkey.

The vehemence of the negative response in the Azerbaijani media, in conjunction with comments by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has led to a perception that Ankara has bowed to pressure from Baku and hardened its position, and that the anticipated rapprochement may therefore be frozen indefinitely.

That negative response also reflects a departure from Baku's earlier position. On December 5, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said that the possibility of Turkey opening its border with Armenia prior to a formal solution of the Karabakh conflict was not on the agenda during his talks several days earlier with his Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan, as doing so "is the sovereign right of those two states."

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian acknowledged on April 10 that the ongoing talks might indeed fail if Ankara sets new preconditions for establishing formal diplomatic ties.

But a careful examination of successive Turkish statements shows major inconsistencies. Erdogan's repeated insistence that Ankara will not open its border with Armenia until a settlement of the Karabakh conflict is reached posits a linkage between the two processes. That is at odds with Turkish Foreign Minister Babacan's statement in Yerevan on April 15. Babacan told reporters following a session of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation that "We don't say, 'Let's first solve one problem and solve the other later,'" implicitly denying any such linkage.

That discrepancy raises the question: are Erdogan's pronouncements intended primarily for domestic consumption and to reassure Azerbaijan, while Babacan's reflect Ankara's ongoing commitment to normalizing relations?

Turkish President Abdullah Gul has not made any comment on Armenian-Turkish relations since the publication of the original "Hurriyet" article almost a month ago. But the newspaper "Today's Zaman" reported on April 21 that Gul will visit Baku after an April 28 session of Turkey's National Security Council that is scheduled to discuss the normalization of relations with Armenia. The same paper on April 9 quoted an unnamed Turkish government official as saying that the Armenian-Turkish border will remain closed at least until October-November. He said Ankara will use that time to allay Azerbaijan's concerns.

But a six-month interval would also serve as an opportunity to achieve tangible progress in resolving the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijani President Aliyev hinted in Moscow on April 17 that Azerbaijan is prepared "in principle" to sign in the near future an interim document on resolving the Karabakh conflict. He did not say whether he meant the Madrid Principles drafted by the OSCE Minsk Group that have served as the basis for negotiations since late 2007.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani political commentator Ilgar Mammadov has suggested that the true reason for Baku's anger at Turkey is not geopolitical but economic, and derives from the ongoing dispute with Turkey over the price Turkey is prepared to pay for Azerbaijani gas to be exported via the planned Nabucco pipeline. Turkey reportedly wants to buy that gas for $150 per thousand cubic meters and sell it for $400. President Aliyev said in Moscow on April 17 that disagreement is delaying the second phase of exploitation of Azerbaijan's huge Shah Deniz gas field.

Mammadov's hypothesis ties in with the March 27 signing of a statement of intent between Azerbaijan and Gazprom under which Azerbaijan could begin selling gas to Russia in early 2010. That statement of intent has been widely interpreted as an indication that Azerbaijan, for whatever reason, would prefer to conclude a binding agreement now to export gas via Russia, rather than wait and see whether and when construction work on Nabucco finally gets under way. Aliyev noted on April 17 that the existing gas pipeline linking Azerbaijan and Russia has a current minimum capacity of 5 billion cubic meters.

Some Russian commentators have inferred from Aliyev's talks in Moscow that Azerbaijan and Russia may have struck a deal under which Azerbaijan sells gas to Gazprom in return for Moscow's services in brokering a solution to the Karabakh conflict. But that interpretation ignores the fact that Russia and Azerbaijan alike have a vested interest both in resolving the Karabakh conflict and in reaching a mutually beneficial agreement on gas exports. And the talks that yielded that statement of intent began last July, before any substantive progress in Turkish-Armenian relations, and before the Russian-Georgian war.

Aliyev was reportedly exceedingly angry with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili for precipitating the August war with Russia that posed a brief but very real threat to the export via Georgia of Azerbaijani oil and gas. Indeed, it is conceivable that Azerbaijan may no longer consider Saakashvili a responsible and reliable partner, or Georgia a viable long-term export route for Caspian hydrocarbons. Thus when Aliyev raised in early April the possibility that Azerbaijan might suspend export of its gas via Turkey, he may well have been adducing the anticipated opening of the Armenian-Turkish border as the rationale for a decision taken earlier and for totally different reasons that it would be injudicious to spell out publicly.

The current shifts in the geopolitical landscape show to what extent the approaches and priorities of individual states have become more complex and multifaceted in the wake of the August war in Georgia. But underlying those shifts is the conviction shared by Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and the United States that further conflict in the South Caucasus must be avoided at all costs.

Further gradual progress on resolving the Karabakh conflict and establishing normal relations between Armenia and Turkey would contribute to strengthening regional stability. And as former Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian pointed out at a press conference in Yerevan on April 17, the current situation also offers an opportunity for Georgia to embark on a strategic partnership with Armenia that would benefit both countries.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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