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Russia Turns Up The Pressure On Turkey

Sergei Lavrov is in Ankara to apply the pressure.
Sergei Lavrov is in Ankara to apply the pressure.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to arrive in Ankara on September 1, where bilateral discussions will focus on the presence in the Black Sea of U.S. warships transporting humanitarian aid to Georgia.

The deputy chief of the Russian armed forces General Staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said last week that according to a 1936 agreement, ships belonging to nonlittoral countries may not remain in the Black Sea for longer than 21 days. Turkish media quoted Nogovitsyn as warning that Russia will wait until that deadline expires, after which it will "hold Turkey responsible for the situation."

Lavrov will also be talking to the Turks about Ankara's proposed Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact that would encompass Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Details of this platform have not been disclosed, but Turkish media quoted government officials as saying that it aims at strengthening peace, stability, mutual respect, and trade in the region.

Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia on August 29 in the wake of the August 8 incursion of Russian forces into Georgia and the formal recognition by Russia on August 26 of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Armenian forces still occupy several districts of Azerbaijan contiguous to the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Turkey currently has no diplomatic relations with Armenia. Its preconditions for establishing such ties are a settlement of the Karabakh conflict, the definitive recognition by the Armenian government of the current border between the two countries, and an end to lobbying by Armenia for recognition that the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide. Those fundamental differences militate against a formal pact.

Living With The Bear

Turkey heavily depends on Russian gas and trade. Although it was not targeted during the recent hostilities, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that transports Caspian oil to Turkey and Europe is vulnerable to attack, especially in the event that Moscow succeeds in replacing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili with a leader willing to accommodate Russian interests.

Bulent Aliriza of the Washington-based think tank CSIS tells RFE/RL that Turkey, sandwiched between Russia and the West, has no illusions about the immediate success of the Caucasus Pact. The Turkish objective is rather to facilitate talks between the five countries that would reduce tensions and ultimately strengthen stability and support regional relations and trade.

Concerned by the increasing Russian influence in the Caucasus and the Black Sea, Turkey is desperately looking for calmer waters. Much like Germany, it cannot afford to take sides with either Georgia or Russia because although Turks traditionally sympathize with Georgia, it needs Russia. On the other hand, despite its strained relations with Armenia, Turkey wants to preach stability, although on its own conditions. Thus, Turkish President Abdullah Gul has not accepted an invitation from his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian to attend a Turkish-Armenian soccer match in Yerevan on September 6. Such soccer diplomacy appears unlikely, even though it would be a nice cosmetic move.

Russia and Armenia look favorably on the Turkish proposal. And why shouldn't they? Unconditional normalization of relations would legitimize the status quo. By contrast, Azerbaijan and Georgia have not committed themselves, and have little reason to do so, as talking business as if no territorial disputes existed would cement their losses.

A Turkish proverb says, "Don't name a still unborn baby." Asked if the proposed Caucasus Stability Pact is such a stillborn infant, Aliriza said, "that would be going too far. It's about talks, defusing tension, and opening the door to more stability in the region." In view of the conflicts between the five countries, it would be premature in the case of the Caucasus Stability Pact even to presume a pregnancy, let alone a stillbirth.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appealed to the European Union on August 29 to act "independently" rather than follow the "foreign-policy interests" of the United States. That is precisely what Lavrov hopes to achieve during his visit to Turkey: that even if it does not express support for the Russian intervention in Georgia, Ankara should remain "neutral" and let Moscow pursue its agenda in the "Near Abroad." If the EU is split on this issue, it can be no surprise that Turkey, dependant on Russian gas and desperate for regional stability and trade, is trying not to provoke the neighboring bear that has woken hungry from hibernation.

Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL