Photo: Istanbul, Turkey © Onnik Krikorian

Istanbul, Turkey / © Onnik Krikorian

Turkey’s South Caucasus Agenda

by | July 17th, 2012 | 6 comments
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Strategically situated as a major conduit for vital energy resources, the South Caucasus has long been an area for competing regional and geopolitical interests. But while competition between Russia and the United States has preoccupied many analysts since 1991 when the three countries making up the region declared their independence from the former Soviet Union, some consider that Turkey could also play an important role in the Caucasus. Despite its well-known problems with Armenia, this is particularly true since tensions between Russia and Georgia culminated in the August 2008 war.

At the beginning of March therefore, an international conference held in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, brought together analysts, diplomats and decision makers from Turkey, the South Caucasus, and international bodies to discuss Ankara’s perceived and potential agenda in the region. Organized by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), the question posed was what role could Turkey play in stabilizing the South Caucasus and how could civil society contribute to peace building despite low levels of civic engagement?

Despite an initiative to launch a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform in 2008 and attempts the following year to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia and open the border closed in 1993, participants considered that Turkey is punching well below its weight. TESEV Foreign Policy Program’s Aybars Görgülü explained why.

“The South Caucasus is little discussed or known in Turkey while successive governments neglected the region for too long,” he said. “When the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia and Georgia were not in Turkey’s list of priorities. Instead, an opportunity was seen in the Turkic world, and financial and political resources were used to create a sphere of influence there. Relations with Azerbaijan also became the backbone of Turkey’s foreign policy towards the region, largely driven by identity and kinship type factors, which some argue limited its success.”

Indeed, noted Görgülü, Turkey’s good relations with Azerbaijan and the solidarity between the two countries complicated Turkey’s relationship with Armenia. “Both already had serious disagreements such as border recognition and the [1915] Genocide, but Turkey’s unconditional support for Azerbaijan [in the conflict with Armenia over Karabakh] became another source of conflict,” he noted. “Turkey’s policy in the early 1990s was based on a romantic and idealized notion more defined by a gap between expectation and actual capability.”

On the other hand, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Turkey made a distinction in its foreign policy between the Caucasus and Central Asia. “It started to adopt a more constructive and comprehensive foreign policy strategy,” Görgülü argued. “So, in that sense, Turkey can be considered a latecomer to the region. The energy card was highly important for Turkey as a hub for the transportation of Caspian oil and gas to the West, and so, like Azerbaijan, Georgia also became an important country, especially after the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.”

Nevertheless, he continued, Armenia was always the missing piece in the puzzle. “Relations with Azerbaijan are still the backbone of Turkey’s policy towards the region and even though the ‘One Nation-Two States’ motto does not really reflect the political reality,” he stressed, “it is still reflected in official rhetoric and solidarity between Turkish and Azerbaijan state elites remains strong while there is domestic support as well.”

As for Armenia, after the much publicized “football diplomacy” initiative, expectations were raised for normalization, but the situation is now deadlocked with no breakthrough likely in the near future. And while civil society in Turkey is developing, there still remains little interest in the South Caucasus on both the state and NGO level. Even so, there has been significant progress in terms of dialogue between Armenian and Turkish NGOs, and in the absence of official relations, Görgülü argued, it is the responsibility of civil society to continue with this process.

The Official View from Turkey

A Georgian priest comforts a resident of Gori during the Russian military occupation of the town in August 2008. The conflict between Russia and Georgia is seen as the main stimulus behind Turkey’s initiative to engage with the South Caucasus © Onnik Krikorian

Not surprisingly, the official line from Levent Murat Burhan, the Turkish Ambassador to Georgia, focused mainly on the problems in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Karabakh. “Situated at the crossroads of East and West as well as North and South, and home to a multitude of different ethnicities, languages and religions, the South Caucasus is one of the most challenging in the global political landscape,” he said. “Its huge potential has not been fully realized because of conflict and shortcomings in terms of political, economic, and social development.”

The August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia demonstrated the danger posed by persisting protracted conflicts and why the present status quo is neither desirable nor sustainable in the long term, Burhan argued. As such, he concluded, the region is a priority in Turkish foreign policy.

Burhan provided examples of this Turkish approach in terms of supporting security and stability and creating a climate of regional cooperation. Initially supported officially in Yerevan as well as by the international community, even if controversial for many in the Diaspora, Turkey in particular remains committed to the normalization process with Armenia, he stated, believing that the two protocols signed in Zurich at the end of October 2009 represented a unique historical opportunity to establish peace and stability in the South Caucasus.

Nevertheless, he added, Turkey considers that the normalization process with Armenia and resolution of the Karabakh conflict are connected and that they therefore affect each other. “With the stalemate [over the disputed territory] also negatively affecting regional dynamics, and even though the Turkey-Armenia and the Armenia-Azerbaijan tracks are to be negotiated separately, there is a relation between the two,” he said. “A positive move in one will help facilitate progress in the other.”

“A more general example, related to this, is that we believe the unsolved conflicts in the South Caucasus are the main obstacles to peace and stability in the region,” he continued. “Therefore, immediately following the Georgian-Russian conflict in August 2008 we introduced an initiative to bring together regional Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) members. The Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform initiative was launched after the outbreak of hostilities and we believe it is the right mechanism to address all regional problems.”

The Armenian Perspective

Naturally, the Armenian position presented by former Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) member and Yerevan State University Professor David Hovannisyan was more critical. “Bilateral relations should simply be that,” he countered. “They aren’t multilateral, so when the Turkish government decided to make linkages between the Armenia-Turkish normalization process and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh it wasn’t fair or helpful in creating a more positive environment for further dialogue.”

Hovannisyan also said that he considered the proposal of a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation platform was naive. “Considered seriously, the initiative was a good one but it was also completely idealistic and unrealistic,” he explained. ”Even if the Turkish initiative did reduce tensions in the region during and after the August 2008 war, it couldn’t become a new process. There is instead the need for trust, new open-minded elites, new governments, and a real process of democratization in all the countries in the region.”

In combination with involvement in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership, Turkey’s role could be more active, but ultimately it is limited in terms of Armenian-Turkish relations, Hovannisyan continued. “There are normal diplomatic procedures for the establishment of diplomatic relations so why did Armenia and Turkey begin to discuss the text of the protocols? It was from our point of view genocide so if we really want to create a real process of reconciliation between two nations there also needs to be an apology.”

Flanked by an Armenian security detail, the car carrying Turkish President Abdullah Gul drives from Zvartnots Airport to Downtown Yerevan less than one month after the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia © Onnik Krikorian


Challenging the Status Quo in the South Caucasus

Chaired by Guenther Baechler, the Swiss Ambassador to Georgia, the first of three panels examined the current role of Turkey in the South Caucasus and how that should develop in the future. The panel addressed whether Turkey is living up to its potential and whether there is a systematic approach in terms of any strategy for the future. Was the absence of reference to Russia and Iran in the Turkish Ambassador’s address diplomatic courtesy in order not to address competitors in the region?

Temel Iskit, a retired Turkish Ambassador, considered these important questions that had to be answered. Iskit also thought that while the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform was a positive initiative on the part of Turkey, its timing was not helpful. “Turkey was not seen as an objective player in the region,” he said. “It was, and still is, considered to be closer to Azerbaijan than Armenia. Even so, the initiative was welcomed by Armenia and not Azerbaijan and Georgia because it was the first time Ankara initially approached Yerevan without preconditions.”

Armenia was eager to participate in the initiative, he explained, and even if this didn’t happen, one by-product was the resulting approach towards Armenia in the form of a road map, enhanced by “football diplomacy,” before the ill-fated signing of two protocols to normalize relations. “Even if Turkey hoped normalization might also contribute to resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict it was not perceived as such by Azerbaijan. Perceptions therefore need to be changed in all three countries,” Iskit said.

“There are two tracks, Armenia-Turkey and Armenia-Azerbaijan, but unfortunately at some point they start to converge. In Turkey, people’s sympathies are with Azerbaijan so this creates political pressure on the government even if there is has been a change in terms of the country’s attitude to Armenia and even the Genocide. Of course, it is slow to change, but over time both Armenia and Turkey will fully understand they share a common history. This is a long-term transformation and civil society is already playing a role in this.”

The View from Azerbaijan

Avaz Hasanov, Director of Society for Humanitarian Research in Baku says the Azerbaijani government as well as domestic society fully supports Turkey’s desire to resolve the Karabakh conflict while rapprochement is also in the interest of the US, EU, and partly Russia too. “Since the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey will build peace and stability in the South Caucasus, integration into Europe will naturally increase as well,” Hasanov opined. “Georgia is more active here, but Euro-integration will promote democratization and realization of peace in the region.”

Nevertheless, he added, energy and communication projects involving Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey but excluding Armenia do not help realize this goal.

“Azerbaijan considers the economic blockade [of Armenia] as the main tool to push for a favorable resolution of the Karabakh conflict,” Hasanov argued. “So, the support of Turkey in terms of normalizing relations can also help overcome the myths and stereotypes prevalent in Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. […] Unfortunately, however, much of civil society instead helps maintains the status quo by mirroring public opinion in its resistance to compromise for the sake of peace as well as the region’s future. There is also no political will.”

The International Community’s Perspective

“Turkey could potentially become a key actor in the South Caucasus, but why does Turkey not occupy that role in reality?” asked moderator Dieter Boden, a German diplomat and former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and previously head of the OSCE Special Mission to Georgia. “Turkey has articulated itself as a central country in quite a few places, but relatively speaking this has been felt less strongly in the Caucasus,” Nigar Goksel responded. “One reason for this could be that Turkey is cautious about stepping on Russia’s toes.”

Goksel, a Senior Analyst and Caucasus Coordinator with the European Stability Initiative (ESI), also believed that unrealistic expectations were set in attempts to improve relations with Armenia. “Many in the West believed that with so many stalemates in the region the one positive dynamic that could be introduced would be opening Turkey’s border with Armenia so that relations would normalize in order to break Russia’s domination,” she said. “It might also break stereotypes and introduce a positive dynamic into Armenia-Azerbaijan relations.”

Theoretically many analysts agree, but Goksel also noted that the opposite could be argued as well. “Azerbaijan’s perspective that it is in its interest for the Armenia-Turkey border to remain closed and there is the view in Baku that Armenia will harden its position on the Karabakh issue if the border is opened,” she explained. “A theoretical argument can also be made that a rift between Baku and Ankara can only give more power to Russia in the neighborhood while others argue that even if Turkey does open the border, Russia’s leverage in Armenia is not going to decrease.”

Another big challenge for Turkey will be 2015, stated Goksel, noting that it would be the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, a term that nearly all participants except for the active Turkish Ambassador in Tbilisi used. “Here the question is what will Turkey do?” she said. “There will be significant pressure to do something, but it’s very important that Turkey starts thinking about this now if it wants to play an important role in the region. It’s also important that it doesn’t react emotionally, but in a rational way that looks forward to the next 100 years of regional stability and cooperation.”

The International Crisis Group’s Sabine Freizer agreed. “If the Armenian-Turkish process was undertaken half-heartedly and only for international reasons then Turkey is going to have a problem in 2015,” she said before turning her attention to Karabakh. “The main miscalculation [with the protocols] was that there were two processes going on in parallel, and that while there was progress on Armenia-Turkey there was the sense that this was also true in the Nagorno Karabakh talks. Unfortunately that was not the case.”’

Graphic via Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) Caucasus Barometer 2011

Graphic via Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) Caucasus Barometer 2011

Graphic via Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) Caucasus Barometer 2011

Nevertheless, she noted, there is still some engagement between Armenia and Turkey which should continue regardless of the conflict with Azerbaijan. “There has been discussion about energy deals between Armenia and Eastern Turkey and that should go forward, and there are already some small steps. For example, Turkey is allowing Armenian trucks into its territory, it provides visas to Armenian citizens, and there are direct flights to and from Yerevan. Turkey hasn’t shut off completely, but there’s also the need to look to the future.”

Others such as Pascal Heyman from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Conflict Prevention Center suggested that Turkey could promote more Track II diplomacy initiatives, including those for Georgians, Abkhazians, and Ossetians. “Confidence building measures in the case of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict have been difficult to achieve agreement on, however, and when they are accepted they largely remain unimplemented. People-to-People contacts, such as those between journalists, have also been difficult to arrange, “he said.

All the speakers, however, noted the urgency of the matter. “Ankara prefers to stabilize the situation hoping it won’t get out of hand while waiting for a better time,” said Peter Semneby, Former EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus. “This position is a dangerous one, if understandable, because it could mean tensions will build up under the surface and be more difficult to address in the future before becoming as uncontrollable as in 2008. There is an arms race which rapidly lowers the threshold for the use of violence and force if nothing is done.”

Graphic via Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) Caucasus Barometer 2011

The Role of Civil Society

Moderator Kenneth Yalowitz, a retired U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and Belarus, introduced the third and final panel, noting that the involvement of NGOs and other non-State actors will be crucial. “There are no such things as frozen conflicts and the situation is not stable as shown in August 2008 with the war between Russia and Georgia,” he said. “The situation in terms of Nagorno Karabakh is unstable and could again turn into hostilities so there is much work to do in terms of ongoing negotiations and state-to-state relations.”

Unfortunately, Yalowitz noted, data from the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) shows that the level of trust in NGOs, as well as an understanding of what civil society actually does, is at a very low level across the entire region. In the context of Karabakh, EPF’s Vazgen Karapetyan offered an insight as to why. “There are some justifiable reasons why NGOs remain low key, but there are also some less than justifiable ones such as competition for resources on the local level so as not to lose ‘business’ and also because donors do not demand a serious impact,” he explained.

Negative stereotypes and hate speech, mainly from governments as well as the media, are therefore not challenged and the impact of civil society in mainstream society is limited as a result. Another reason is that a lack of coordination domestically, as well as cross-border, combined with the heightened official policy of constructing the “image of the enemy” raises suspicion among citizens towards confidence building and peace building initiatives. “That’s a more than less legitimate reason for low awareness,” he concluded.

Craig Oliphant, formerly with the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and now with the NGO Saferworld added some other reasons. “Frustrations and grievances in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict not only remain, but have actually worsened and increased,” he said. “Baku looks at Track II diplomacy and the involvement of NGOs with skepticism, considering that confidence building measures should not be seen as some kind of ‘reward’ for Armenia in the absence of any actual resolution. As a psychological problem, that’s a particular challenge for NGOs.”

Even so, noted Oliphant, Turkey has shown itself to be an ideal host country for numerous cross-border civil society initiatives for participants from the South Caucasus. But, with many believing that Turkey is hesitant in encroaching upon Russia’s perceived sphere of influence even if it does show an interest in engaging Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and with Armenia-Turkey relations and the Karabakh peace process in deadlock, it seems unlikely that Ankara will be able to assume a more pro-active role in the region any time soon.

Nevertheless, with many considering that Ankara’s priorities and interests in the region are almost identical to those of the European Union’s, the debate and discussion will no doubt continue, and especially in the context of its approach to Armenia. “However,” remarked George Khutsishvili, director of the Tbilisi-based International Center on Conflict and Negotiation (ICCN), in the remarks from the floor that followed, “there are more questions than answers about what its role should be.”

One of two closed border gates separating Armenia and Turkey. One is close to Gyumri while this one is situated in Margara, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian


  1. David says:

    So, Turkey and some in the US and Europe think that it is perfectly understandable that Turkey would link the opening of its border with a peace agreement between Armenians and Turkey’s “brotherly Turkic” Azerbaijan over Artsakh/Karabagh.

    Hey, Onnik, maybe Armenia should link its relations with Turkey over a peace agreement between Turkey and Cyprus, huh? After all, Greek Cypriots are brotherly Christians, Armenians live in Cyprus, and Armenians owned property in northern Cyprus that Turkey has occupied.

    But if you suggest such a thing, most people will think, “Well, it is legitimate for Turkey to make its demandsm but Armenia has no right to make a similar demand.” This is how the “reconcilation” crowd thinks. They “understand” Turkish opinion.

    As for Turkey’s playing a “stablizing role” in the Caucasus: please don’t make us laugh.

    Does the author, Mr. Krikorian, realize that Turkey, as recently as less than 100 years ago, invaded Russian Armenia/Armenian Republic? In 1993, says the ex-Greek ambassador to Armenia, Turkey was set to invade Armenia if given the go-ahead by the Chechen who was poised to overthrow Yeltsin.

    Does the author know any of this?

  2. David, this is an account of the opinions of people who are defining policy in Turkey and the South Caucasus. Also, counter views on policy to date, or obstacles to processes in play, are given by them as well. I know the tendency is for media in the region to convey only those opinions that fit in with narrow mindsets, all of which clash in the Caucasus and lead to conflict, but that’s not a helpful, objective, or productive approach. This conference instead represented all of the positions, including those of Armenia and Azerbaijan, relations between which are proving to be the main obstacle of all to Turkey’s approach to the region. Turkey’s position is represented here, but so too is Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s. Those attempting to resolve the situation, including representatives of Armenian civil society (who ironically have stronger links with Turkish NGOs than their Azerbaijani and Georgian counterparts), is also represented.

  3. Very informative article and analysis, Onnik. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops, but, overall, I personally believe that a peaceful Caucasus can only be achieved through more open minds and open borders. In this respect, civil society NGOs and young people are absolutely critical.

  4. There’s now an additional and more comprehensive analysis from the conference:

    Turkey’s South Caucasus Agenda: The Role of State and Non-State Actors

  5. Very, very interesting.

    I think Turkey’s attitude towards the Caucasus is formed by a sense that its geopolitical options and, by extension, business opportunities are relatively limited. Though they do see potential in the region, the ongoing territorial disputes and thicket of geopolitical alliances makes Ankara wary of its level of involvement.

    There, the reconciliation with Armenia represents its own set of issues while a further engagement with Azerbaijan would be problematic to say the least. Despite public shows of “Turkic solidarity,” the truth is that the religious Erdoğan and the secular Aliyev have a deep personal dislike for one another (according to the recent deluge of Wikileaks). The fact that Ankara has cast itself as the champion of the Arab Spring only complicates matters more. To deepen its relationship with the oppressive Aliyev now would make it seem hypocritical. Add to all of this a tenuously stable Georgia and the longstanding historical, political, and cultural influence of Russia and you can see why Ankara is so hesitant to get involved.

    By contrast, Turkey sees greater opportunities in the south, in Ankara’s former Ottoman domains in the Arab world and the Middle East. From their view, it’s much easier to work with Syrian and Egyptian businesses and to play up to the Arab street on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than to engage in the geopolitically complex and potentially unstable Caucasus, despite even the most obvious economic and social benefits.