Oct 19, 2009

Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Where next?

By Alexander Jackson, Caucasian Review of International Affairs exclusively for APA

The signing of the Turkish-Armenian protocols in Geneva on October 10 was viewed as a success, with only the awkward matter of ratifying the protocols in the parliaments preventing the opening of the ‘last closed border in Europe’. There has been little consideration of the implications of the protocol signing.

The Turkish-Armenian thaw has the potential to seriously disturb the political dynamics of the South Caucasus. Both Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have made serious gambles on the thaw, and the consequences may be unpredictable.

President Sarkisian’s challenge is domestic. Although the diaspora continue to oppose reconciliation, the more serious risk comes from the political opposition: ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (ANC), the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), and the Heritage Party.

The opposition cannot challenge the ratification in parliament, since the ruling coalition dominates the legislature. Any challenge would have to be made, as so often in Armenian politics, on the streets. Anything could happen in such a volatile context, and a violent revolution is not unforeseeable if a cycle of escalation begins.

However, the government has calculated that the mutual distrust between the three opposition parties will prevent them from unifying to challenge the protocols. The ARF loathes Levon Ter-Petrosian, who banned them in 1994 during his presidency: a speaker at a recent ARF rally spent much of his speech attacking Mr Ter-Petrosian rather than the government (RFE/RL, October 16). Both the ARF and Heritage fear that Mr Ter-Petrosian’s opposition to the government is tactical. Despite recent calls by the ANC for President Sarkisian to resign, the other parties suspect that the ex-President supports the thaw and simply seeks to gain power (Tert.am, October 14).

The ARF, apparently playing a long game, are not calling for the President’s resignation – yet. They are calling for a popular movement to develop, allying with Heritage, and are insisting that their struggle will be fought through constitutional and legal means. This seems to be a tactical move to prevent alienating ordinary Armenians through revolutionary rhetoric.

Unless the ARF-Heritage movement can ally with the popular Mr Ter-Petrosian, they will not be able to generate sufficient support for a broad anti-government movement. Factional infighting will allow the government to sit tight and push the protocols through parliament. However, opposition to the protocols will grow as time passes – and there is no guarantee that they will be ratified soon.

This is because of Turkey’s challenge: reconciling public statements about the need for progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with its clear desire to ratify the protocols. The ruling AKP party had apparently gambled that they could force concessions from Armenia in the run-up to the signing ceremony. The linkage of the Turkish-Armenian thaw and progress on Nagorno-Karabakh had been explicitly made by the Turkish government, which insisted that one could not take place without the other (Today.az, October 12). But time is running out, and there has been no agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Until an agreement is made, ratifying the protocols would be seen by Azerbaijan, and by many Turks, as a serious betrayal. Intensive lobbying by Azerbaijani political groups in Turkey is creating serious momentum against ratification. President Sargsyan seems to be betting that under the pressure from the West (US President Obama already had a lengthy phone call with President Gul and sent an invitation to Prime Minister Erdogan to visit US on Oct. 29, Today’s Zaman) Turkey will be obliged to ratify the protocols regardless of progress on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan is making its fury increasingly clear. An ominous warning from the Foreign Ministry that the signing “calls into question the architecture of regional peace and security” was followed by a statement from President Aliyev that “the war is not over yet” and that “no problem in the region – political, diplomatic, economic, energy, transport – can be solved without Azerbaijan’s participation” (APA, October 17).

The significance of this statement was made clear in the same cabinet meeting, when President Aliyev launched a scathing attack on Turkey’s “unacceptable” price demands for the sale and transit of Azerbaijan’s gas (RFE/RL, October 17). He said that selling gas to Turkey at a third of the market price was illogical, and threatened to prioritise gas sales to Russia. Just days earlier, Azerbaijan signed a deal with Russia’s Gazprom (UPI, October 16). The contract formalised agreements made earlier in the year and which envisions the sale of 500 million m3 of Azerbaijan’s gas to Gazprom in 2010.

Clearly, Baku is threatening to cease cooperating with Turkey on oil and gas transit, crippling its plans to become a regional energy hub. This could also be a fatal blow to the Nabucco project to bring Eurasian gas to the heart of Europe. Bypassing Turkey, Azerbaijan could send its gas to Russia, to Georgia’s Black Sea ports (and on to Europe), or to Iran, as was contemplated by President Aliyev in the same meeting. Any or all of these options would reduce the need for Nabucco.

More significantly, they would reduce Azerbaijan’s ties to the West. The Georgian option, the only route which would continue to link Baku with Europe, is impractical and costly. Sending gas to either Russia or Iran would tie Azerbaijan into a close relationship with those states. In particular, Moscow would be eager to reassert influence in the South Caucasus as its alliance with Yerevan loses focus. The EU, and the US, would lose traction in Azerbaijan even as they gain it in Armenia. For the purposes of energy security and geopolitics, this would be a questionable trade.

The next few months will be fraught with difficulties, as regional states attempt to untangle the Caucasian knot. If Turkey ratifies the protocols without progress on Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan will almost certainly suspend their alliance. Military tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan will rise. Nabucco will become even less likely and Western influence in the Caspian region will decrease even further.