US officials claim that improving Turkish-Armenian relations and opening the border would change the whole atmosphere in the region and induce Yerevan to be flexible on troop withdrawal. Using this argument, Washington insists on separating the border-opening issue from the troop withdrawal issue, pressing for the former while delaying the latter.
Instead of pursuing this approach on convergent tracks (with both tracks converging toward a comprehensive balanced outcome), the US State Department opted from the outset for parallel tracks, with different speeds and favoring the Armenian side. It then moved overtly to a “separate-track" approach, and adopted a peremptory tone in insisting on such separation (Philip H. Gordon, US Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Sabanci Lecture, The Brookings Institution, Washington, March 17). Thus, the State Department pushed hard for progress on the Turkey-Armenia border-opening track, while relegating the issue of Armenian troop withdrawal from Azerbaijan to a slow-moving, or indeed stationary, side-track.
Baku and, eventually, Ankara did not lend credence to that argument. A premature re-opening of the Turkish-Armenian border would have removed Yerevan’s main incentive to withdraw its troops from Azerbaijan’s districts around Karabakh. By the same token, it would have removed Baku’s main (possibly sole) leverage to persuade Armenia to withdraw those troops, as the first stage in the process to resolve the conflict. The linkage between border opening and troop withdrawal had been a fundamental element in the negotiating process for almost a decade, and is Turkish policy since 1993 (when Armenian forces crossed from Karabakh into Azerbaijan’s interior). Breaking that linkage –as per the October 2009 Turkey-Armenia protocols, strongly encouraged by the US– would undermine Baku’s patiently constructed diplomatic strategy for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Baku proposes opening all borders to trade and transit as part of the first stage in the conflict resolution process, linked with the Armenian troops’ withdrawal.
In parallel with Washington’s diplomatic initiatives, US officials criticized actual or purported human rights violations in Azerbaijan; fed (as is assumed in Baku) a media story about the presidential family’s alleged property acquisitions; and published a US State Department report claiming (without evidence) that 30 percent of Azeri students are drug users (a claim soon retracted amid an outcry). Such moves added unnecessary strain to the relationship. Azeri authorities and local analysts perceive such moves as designed to pressure Baku into acquiescing in Washington’s recent initiatives that adversely affect Azerbaijan’s top national interest –the stage-by-stage resolution of the Karabakh conflict.
Azerbaijan reacted with a surprisingly effective outreach to Turkey’s body politic, undercutting US initiatives there. Azeri government officials, parliamentarians, independent non-governmental organizations, think-tank experts, and journalists liaised with their counterparts in Ankara and Istanbul, arguing against premature Turkish ratification of the Armenian-Turkish protocols. Initially, Azerbaijan reached out to Turkey’s Kemalist opposition, where nationalist identification with kindred Azerbaijan is strong. Soon, however, a critical mass in the Islamist-rooted, governing AKP party and Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also embraced Baku’s position. Already during his December 2009 Washington visit, Erdogan publicly turned down President Obama’s entreaties to proceed with ratification of the protocols and re-opening the border. Erdogan reaffirmed his stance during his meetings with Obama and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan at the Washington nuclear security summit and in the summit’s aftermath (Anatolia news agency, Zaman, Milliyet, Hurriyet, April 14–16). Erdogan and his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, briefed Baku in detail about the discussions with the US and Armenian sides at the Washington summit, where Azerbaijan had been kept demonstratively away by the US. Erdogan has again given public assurances that “as long as the occupation persists, we will not open the border” (CNN Turk, ATV, April 18).
With a high-stakes electoral campaign looming in Turkey, and a plateful of controversial nationalist issues already weighing on its agenda (Kurdish opening, other minority issues, Cyprus, to name a few) the AKP government will hardly risk ratifying the protocols and opening the border for Armenia, at Azerbaijan’s expense. Were the government to take that risk in response to US urgings, the issue of 800,000 Turkic Azeris ethnically cleansed from those territories would be injected into Turkey’s electoral campaign by the opposition. In asking Erdogan to face that risk, Washington may have underestimated the resilience of nationalist identification among large parts of AKP’s Islamist electorate, quite apart from the parties of Kemalist legacy.
In the run-up to the annual April 24 political drama, Washington proved unwilling to ask Yerevan to commit to withdrawing the troops from inner Azerbaijan. US initiatives have also failed to de-commit Yerevan from the pursuit of genocide recognition. Diaspora groups have kept up political pressure toward that goal in the United States, instead of easing that pressure on the Administration. Nor could Washington’s initiatives be expected to open even slight cracks in the Russia-Armenia alliance.
The US-Turkish relationship is ultimately unsinkable, despite mutually inflicted damage in recent years. Washington’s relations with pro-US Azerbaijan, however, have reached a point of critical deterioration in recent months. Whether Washington’s policy thrust is deliberate or inadvertent, or the top US policy makers are fully alert to the possible consequences or oblivious to them, remain a matter of internal debate in Baku for the time being. Traditionally accustomed to take Azerbaijan’s support for granted on the full range of US strategic interests, and currently bereft of an ambassador there, Washington does not seem to notice or appreciate the alienation that its recent initiatives have produced in Azerbaijan.<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>