Fractures in the Caucasus, and Turkey’s Regional Ambitions

As we have seen in recent days, Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia and Russia’s strong reaction have produced, as a major consequence, a re-assessment of America’s assertive strategy toward Russia and its historic zone of influence in the region.

Russia’s recent military initiative aims to put an end to the US attempts to reduce Russia’s status in the region to a mere regional power, from that of a superpower, forcing Russia down to the level of Turkey, an ally of the United States. Indeed, by attempting to minimize Russia’s role in the Caucasus, with the assistance of its Turkish ally, the US government’s policy was to entice the ex-Soviet republics to adhere to NATO, while pressing Europeans to actively support the accession of Turkey to Europe. Objective: to divide Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus with Turkey, if not to replace it in the region.

Immediately after the Georgian crisis erupted, profiting from the pre-electoral paralysis in the United States and the internal dissension of Europeans on its response to Russia, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan launched a tour to Tbilissi, Moscow and Baku with a proposal in pocket to promote the formation of a “Caucasus Alliance,” a Turkish platform for Safety and Cooperation in the South Caucasus, with the facade of “managing” regional conflicts within the framework “of the sovereignty of States and the inviolability of borders.”

Obviously, the new Russian play in the Caucasus is regarded by the Turks as a threat to their vital interests. Also, despite the present refusal of the Georgians and Russia’s to sit at the same table, it appears that Turkey is now posing itself as an intermediary between parties, i.e. East-West, Europe – Russia, Georgia – Russia, Armenia ‘s Azerbaijan, etc. Aiming to reinforce this newly devised mediator role of his country, Turkish President Abdullah Gul has even agreed to go to Armenia at the invitation of the Armenian President, at the time of a football game between the teams of the two countries.

To understand what Europe must make of this sudden “peacemaking” activism by Turkey, one must understand this country’s vision vis-?-vis its relationships in this neighboring region, in the light of its Caucasus policy of the last twenty years, since the disintegration of the USSR, in a region of countless opposites and innumerable open or hidden interethnic conflicts.

First and foremost, it is important to note that, far from attenuating current conflicts, Turkey’s policy in the Caucasus has instead actively contributed to regional instability by deliberately fueling interethnic fractures. Indeed, while supposedly advancing NATO’s reach in the region, Turkey undertook a bilateral military cooperation program with the Georgian army, and took an active part in arming Azerbaijan to the teeth while encouraging a belligerent mindset and war-mongering by the country’s leaders.

The blockade of Armenia by Turkey, initiated in a show of support to Azerbaijan, is a case in point, which only proves Turkey’s direct interest and partiality in the regional conflicts. Indeed, beyond asserting its alliance with Azerbaijan vis-a-vis the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Turkey has refused to engage in normal diplomatic relations with Armenia placing impossible conditions, such as the abandonment by Armenia and by the Armenia’s in Europe and elsewhere of their deman’s for the international political recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Needless to say, such policies cause a serious harm to the economy of Armenia, a small country to the east of Turkey, while stagnating the regional economic integration of the Caucasus countries. By actively pursuing a policy of encirclement of Russia, drawing inspiration from the American strategy in the region, Turkey has based its Caucasus policy on the active exclusion of Armenia from major infrastructure projects involving communications and East-West energy transport: the Pipeline Baku – Tbilisi – Ceyhan, the Gas pipeline Baku – Tbilisi – Erzeroum, and the new Kars – Tbilisi ‘s Baku railroad as a deliberate bypass of the existing line passing through the City of Gumri in Armenia.

In addition to its negative record in the South Caucasus, Turkey presents other problematic issues that prevent it from acting as a genuinely neutral power, able to regulate conflicts in the Caucasus. Indeed, to be credible in the eyes of Europeans in this peacemaker role, Turkey should withdraw its army from Cyprus and finally recognize this member state of the European Union it aspires to join.

Moreover, it should also stop violating the sovereignty of neighboring Iraq through military incursions that have become all too frequent, under the pretext of pre-empting the threat of Kurdish attacks on its territory. It should peacefully solve its conflict with the Kurds who represent a quarter of its population. It should fundamentally reform its age-old policies perpetuating the abuse of human rights and basic freedoms, and finally it should cease its policy of denying the Armenian Genocide and should commit itself to reparations for this crime against humanity.

Europe does not need a gendarme in the Caucasus. Taking into account the legitimate interests of Russia, Europe will be able to find in itself the capability to establish and apply, without intermediaries, a Caucasus policy founded on political and economic integration of the whole region, without excluding anyone, with a view to the wellbeing of the populations, of their right to existence and self-determination. Confining the debate to only territorial integrity has never been sufficient for the regulation of interethnic conflicts anywhere in the world.

The OSCE understood this, and affirmed the right to self-determination as an essential principle for the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the other major conflict of the South Caucasus. In this sense, the Turkish proposal is deliberately deficient and cannot be a basis of regional stability.

As for Georgia, its efforts to create a nation-state in the 21st century with a mosaic of populations comprised of dozens of minorities is counter to logic. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, forced into rebellion by the ultranationalist policies of Georgia’s leaders, have already seceded. But several other important minorities such the Adjars, ethnic Armenia’s and others claim cultural and economic rights within the framework of a confederative Georgian state. Successive Georgian regimes led by Zviad Gamsakhourdia, Eduard Shevardnadze and then Mikheil Saakashvili answered these claims with unabated repression and constraints, and doubled the efforts of forced assimilation, supported by an alliance between the State and nationalist and xenophobic Church institutions.

The destruction of tens of Armenian churches from the Middle Ages by Georgian clerics, the georgianization of Russian, Catholic and Armenian churches by the Georgian orthodox Church only exacerbate the interethnic tensions, and create new tensions making this country one of the most explosive parts of the region.

All in all, one can affirm that Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia had all the ingredients of a spillover of the hostilities over the entire Caucasus. Georgia’s venture magnified the threat of a proliferating war in the whole region. Indeed, Azerbaijan by no means is hiding its warlike intentions, and is awaiting the right opportunity to re-launch hostilities against Armenia by attacking Nagorno Karabakh. The militaristic declarations of the Azeri President and the exorbitant military budget of Azerbaijan are a testament to that reality. It is likely that without the armed intervention of Russia, Azerbaijan would have followed the example of its Georgian ally.

In the precarious situation that persists in this theatre of operations, the threat of generalized war is still not abated. The recognition by Russia of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the other hand, institutionalized the precedent of Kosovo, proving thus that such serious decisions cannot be unilateral and without consequences on the world scene. From the geopolitical point of view, these recognitions of sovereignty definitely lead to a new framework determining the state of relations between the international community and Russia, a new world order indeed.

It is then the historic moment for Europe to re-affirm itself and its role, by working to attenuate the tensions at its borders through a balanced policy, respectful of Russia’s will to be counted on the world political chessboard, and to better protect Europe from the sudden summersaults of geopolitics.

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Editors Note: Hilda Tchoboian is the Chairperson of the European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy.

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