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Turkey Revives 'Caucasus Initiative,' But Faces Obstacles

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (right) with Foreign Minister Ali Babacan (file photo)
Turkish President Abdullah Gul (right) with Foreign Minister Ali Babacan (file photo)
Western governments have deployed considerable diplomatic resources to broker peace between Russia and Georgia since their conflict broke out last month over Georgia's breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But efforts to pacify the entire South Caucasus, with its complex history and critical role as a trade and energy conduit, have also come from more unexpected quarters -- namely Turkey.

At the peak of the Russia-Georgia conflict, on August 13, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan floated plans to create a so-called Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact that would include the three South Caucasus countries plus two regional heavyweights, Turkey and Russia.

The idea, in fact, is not new. Former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel suggested creating a pan-South Caucasus grouping in the late 1990s.

But the armed conflict in Georgia brought the project back to the fore.

"We've been looking for ways to create a more friendly atmosphere in the region since the 1990s," says Oktay Aksoy, a researcher with Ankara's Foreign Policy Institute. "But the latest developments prompted Turkey to think that proposing a kind of platform in which all countries related to the region could participate may give them a chance to smooth out their differences."

Russia, eager to keep the West and NATO at arm's length in the South Caucasus, has thrown its weight behind the regional pact.

Speaking during his visit to Turkey this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said such a grouping would help participating states mend fences without other countries "imposing their own prescriptions."

The three other would-be members -- Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- have met the project with more caution. Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili, for one, said her country would not consider joining the group until all Russian forces remaining from the August fighting pull out of Georgia.

The proposal also got a cold reception in the United States, a close ally of Turkey, where officials complained they had not been informed in advance and criticized the initiative for failing to include Western nations.

High Stakes

Turkey nonetheless appears determined to go ahead with the project, which it has already discussed in separate talks with Russian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani officials.

Ankara has much to gain from the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact.

Such an alliance would boost its diplomatic clout in an increasingly strategic part of the world -- giving it a valuable opportunity to stir its long-dormant bid to join the European Union.

Reducing tensions in the South Caucasus would, by extension, protect Turkey's vast trade and energy interests in the region.

"The Caucasus is an important neighborhood for Turkey," notes Aksoy. "Its stability is necessary, not only because it neighbors Turkey but also because it is a passageway between Turkey and Central Asia. Anything upsetting stability there is a concern for Turkey. It is also a route through which Turkey imports its oil and gas, and it seeks to be a transit route for these resources to Europe."

Turkey is heavily dependent on Russian energy -- 63 percent of the natural gas and 29 percent of the oil that it consumes hail from Russia.

Ankara also meets much of its growing energy needs with Azerbaijani oil coming through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline -- currently the only transnational pipeline that transports Caspian oil without crossing Russian territory.

The war in Georgia, and the standoff it has sparked between Russia and the West, has set off alarm bells in Ankara. Any military conflict between Western and Russian forces vying for influence in the region would put Turkey in the spotlight as the neighborhood's only NATO country -- a prospect that would wreck its relations with Russia, Turkey's leading trade partner.

"A clash between NATO, [i.e.] the West, and Russia is taking shape in the region," Azerbaijani political analyst Rakhim Musabekov tells RFE/RL. "In this situation, Turkey is on the front line. It will have to be a forefront for the West in its battle against Russia. It will bear the brunt of this and of a possible frontal conflict, with all the losses and the risks it would involve. Turkey is trying to find ways to avoid these scenarios."

Uphill Battle

Turkey's Caucasus initiative, however, faces huge diplomatic hurdles before it can get off the ground.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi are at a historical low after their August war.

Armenia and Azerbaijan remain locked in a bitter dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority rebel territory located within Azerbaijan.

While Moscow helped the Armenian side in the war that broke out in the enclave in the early 1990s, Turkey has traditionally supported Azerbaijan, with which it shares strong ethnic and religious ties.

The BTC pipeline has also angered Russia, which is waging an aggressive campaign to gain a grip on Azerbaijan's vast energy resources.

Turkey itself has no diplomatic relations with Armenia due to the Nagorno-Karabakh standoff and Yerevan's demands that Turkey recognize as genocide the mass slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915.

Turkey strongly denies the genocide accusations and insists both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks died in the fighting.

Last but not least, Ankara is embroiled in a nasty trade dispute with Moscow after allowing two U.S. ships to transit the Bosphorus Strait to provide aid to Georgia following the hostilities with Russia.

With so many challenges before it, many believe Turkey's plans to create a South Caucasus alliance is doomed to failure.

"Turkey's ambition is understandable. But I think its chances of implementing this idea are extremely small, mainly because it will be impossible in the foreseeable future to reconcile the interests of Georgia and Russia," says Musabekov. "I have equally little hope that Turkey will normalize its relations with Armenia to such an extent that it is able to influence Yerevan and persuade it to adopt a compromise that is acceptable for Azerbaijan."

Ankara would certainly have to tread an even finer line between Russia and the West.

Turkey's minority populations from throughout the region also limit its room for diplomatic maneuver.

"When looking at the situation in Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Chechnya, and so forth, one has to bear in mind that to some extent these are internal problems for Turkey, because there are immigrants from all these areas of the Caucasus living in Turkey and acting as lobbies," says David Barchard, a history professor at Ankara's Bilkent University. "They're not very visible lobbies -- I don't think you'd read about them in the Turkish papers -- but they are there, both in the parliament and the cabinet. So Turkey will always have to tread something of a delicate line in order to avoid offending these different, and in some cases conflicting, minorities."

Not All So Bleak

But there's also cause for optimism about the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul is breaking down a historic barrier by accepting Armenia's invitation to attend a football match in Yerevan this weekend, a major diplomatic step that could signal a thaw between the two countries.

A statement on the Turkish president's official website said the September 6 match -- in which Armenia and Turkey will vie for qualification for the 2010 World Cup -- will be "instrumental in removing the barriers blocking rapprochement" between the two states.

Landlocked Armenia, too, is interested in normalizing relations with Ankara. The war in Georgia has disrupted Armenia's oil and grain deliveries, the bulk of which travel by rail from Georgia's Black Sea ports. Reopening its sealed border with Turkey would enable Armenia to diversify its import routes.

Such rapprochement is likely to find strong support in Russia, which has heavily invested in Armenia and is eager to use the country as a springboard to expand its markets throughout the region.

Barchard believes the pact has the potential to grow into a constructive regional grouping.

"There have been some formulas which have been quite successful. One is the Black Sea Economic Cooperation pact, in which Russia plays a full part," Barchard says. "It's not been a very lively organization, it was regarded by some people -- I suspect by the United States -- as fairly moribund, but it has continued to function. So I think there must be some prospect that something of this sort could happen with the [Turkish initiative]. It might actually develop into some kind of watch group specifically on the Caucasus."

Should it fail to ease the region's simmering tensions, however, the proposed grouping could end up being little more than a talk shop -- or what Barchard describes as a "grand media circus."

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