David J. Smith*
With considerable ado, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met in Zurich October 10 to sign an agreement that would establish diplomatic relations and re-open the border between their two countries. Turkey closed that border in 1993 when Armenia invaded neighboring Azerbaijan, occupying Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories. Some feted the new agreement as an epochal breakthrough for peace and understanding. Others fretted over possible unintended negative consequences. But a couple of months later, the agreement has hit the brick wall of reality, which is blocking legislative approval in both countries. Now, the western leaders who comprised the backdrop to the Zurich signing ceremony must engage in a serious diplomatic effort to salvage the agreement and then channel it in a positive direction—Caucasus politics is a full time endeavor.
The Zurich agreement also establishes a joint commission of historians to examine killings that took place between 1915 and 1918, which Armenians claim constituted genocide.
External actors worked the issue hard. The US State Department let it be known that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made 29 telephone calls to leaders of the two countries. Then, in a car parked in front of her Swiss hotel, Clinton undertook a round of last-minute cell phone diplomacy—it seemed Nalbandian balked at Davutoğlu’s plan to mention Nagorno-Karabakh in his signing ceremony speech. Clinton resolved the matter by nixing speeches altogether.
Even the Russians pitched in. As Nalbandian appeared to freeze just before signing, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, sent him a note that read, “Sign it easily and go.”
What brought all these forces together—in the Caucasus of all places? Just 14 months earlier, Russia wantonly attacked western interests along the East-West Corridor that leads through Georgia from the Black Sea to the Caspian. Was Moscow now joining with Washington and Brussels to build a wider East-West Corridor running through Armenia? Did diplomats believe that re-opening the Turkish-Armenian border could be divorced from the continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was the proximate cause of its closing?
It is likelier that the external actors came together in Zurich by a mixture of domestic politics, photo-opportunity diplomacy and belief in each capital that the apparent confluence of short-term interests could be used as a next step in the Caucasian geopolitical game.
Whatever the ingredients of the Zurich signing and however clever Clinton’s no speech solution, geopolitical reality soon boiled over. In Baku, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said, “The normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia before the withdrawal of Armenian troops from occupied Azeri territory is in direct contradiction to the national interests of Azerbaijan.”
Two days after the signing, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan said in Ankara what Davutoğlu had intended to say in Zurich: “We want all the borders to be opened at the same time…but as long as Armenia has not withdrawn from Azerbaijani territory that it is occupying, Turkey cannot have a positive attitude on this subject.
Azerbaijan will not quietly watch its territorial integrity slip into diplomatic limbo. And Turkey can ill afford to ignore Azerbaijan.
Erdoğan’s December visit to Washington and Ankara’s desire to sidestep an American Congressional resolution next spring labeling the World War I era killings as “genocide” may result in some action, maybe even Turkish Grand National Assembly approval. However, there will be no meaningful progress on the October agreement until there is meaningful progress on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Today, the biggest risk is that the Zurich agreement may amount to nothing—in an atmosphere of heightened expectations, posturing and western distraction.
One of the lessons of Russia’s August 2008 attack on Georgia is that if the west wants conflict resolution in the Caucasus, it must abandon stale mid-level diplomatic formats like the Group of Friends that addressed the conflict over Abkhazia and the Minsk Group charged with resolving the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in favor of sustained high-level engagement.
Regrettably—but realistically—such engagement may reveal that the clash of interests among Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey is more fundamental than was hoped and that there is also a clash of interests among the external actors—Russia versus the west.
Then, even if a big diplomatic push succeeds in getting the agreement back on track, many underlying issues and years of mistrust will remain. Consequently, western leaders must remain engaged to channel the agreement in a positive direction. The main danger will remain geopolitical.
Every effort must be made to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and to guarantee Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and security. If this is done, Baku will stick to peaceful means of conflict resolution, continue to balance the sway of its large neighbors and remain free to participate in energy projects like the prospective Nabucco pipeline.
Meanwhile, this process must encourage the constructive elements in Armenian society to take courageous steps, including working constructively with Georgia on issues pertaining to ethnic Armenians living in regions like Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli.
All this would nudge Moscow into dealing even-handedly with Baku and allowing Yerevan to steer a more independent course, thereby foregoing the option of using the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement to generate greater pressure on Georgia.
Partisans of photo-opportunity diplomacy may scoff that all these requirements will simply sink the Zurich agreement. They may. However, experienced diplomats understand that cause and effect must both be addressed. If it works, the peace and economic growth that would seize the South Caucasus would be tremendous—far outweighing any emergent downsides.
(Published in Investor.ge, Issue 6, December, 2009 )
*David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.
Turkey-Armenia rapprochement: One step forward, two steps back