Turkey’s shuttle diplomacy to manage the aftermath of the conflict in Georgia has kept Turkish foreign policy in the spotlight. During a series of visits to Tbilisi, Moscow, and Baku in the first half of August, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed Ankara’s proposal for a Caucasian Stability and Cooperation Platform, which would aspire to bring together Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. On receiving an initial green light from the regional countries, Turkish diplomats and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan have been holding working meetings with their counterparts.
Since Erdogan aired this proposal, the senior partners, Turkey and Russia, have worked out the details of the project. Babacan earlier had a phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on August 22. A Turkish delegation visited Moscow on August 26 to work on Turkey’s proposals, but neither party disclosed the details (Radikal, August 26). Lavrov is visiting Istanbul on September 2 to discuss bilateral relations as well as the pact. In the meantime, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov visited Ankara on August 29, and Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili visited Istanbul on August 31. The Armenian foreign minister and president had already welcomed Turkey’s proposal. After weeks of speculation and criticism from the opposition, sources in Ankara expect Turkish President Abdullah Gul to visit Armenia this week for a soccer game (Radikal, September 2). President Gul and his delegation will extend an official invitation to Armenia to join the proposed pact. The Armenian President is visiting Russia today in anticipation of Gul visit (www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/detaylar.do?load=detay&link=151898&bolum=102).
The content of the pact will be shaped following these meetings, but proposals vary from boosting economic cooperation to developing crisis management mechanisms similar to the OSCE in Europe. The underlying goal is to create conditions for stability and peace through regional cooperation, which resonates well with the government’s new foreign policy agenda of projecting Turkey as an indispensable peace broker in the region. Domestically, the initiative reflects cooperation between Turkey’s key offices.
Turkey seems determined to use this crisis as an opportunity to find long-lasting solutions for the region’s stalemated conflicts and to boost peace. The means to this end is through deepener economic interdependence among the countries by creating interlocking channels in various important areas, including energy, transportation, and infrastructure. Because the region is already beset with perennial bilateral problems, a multilateral initiative such as this could in theory provide a new platform to achieve a breakthrough in these protracted problems.
The key to realizing the project is for the regional countries to set aside their differences. Russia continues its occupation of Georgia, while Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh poisons its relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. In the meantime, a Turkish-Russian trade dispute has been accelerating into a serious crisis. The visits of the Azerbaijani and Georgian foreign ministers already demonstrated that their support for the project is heavily conditional on obtaining clear guarantees on issues vital to them, and they remain reluctant at best. Most importantly, Tkeshelashvili’s visit particularly underlined the lack of trust between the would-be partners. While Turkey’s proposal assumes that the Caucasian countries could develop a local security regime, it stresses that a broader initiative including European powers is also needed. Short of such a solution, Turkey is worried that this initiative could justify Russia’s near abroad policy (NTV, September 1).
This creates a difficult predicament: As long as the major regional power is seen as the aggressor, the smaller countries will seek powerful external arbiters. Ironically, Russia’s attempt to curb outside involvement in its near abroad lies at the heart of the crisis. Since Turkey will not be able on its own to give assurances to Georgia, the viability of the project is in question. Turkish analysts have also questioned whether an initiative excluding Iran could survive as well (Ihsan Dagi in Today’s Zaman, August 25).
Let alone assuring smaller countries in a closed regional arrangement, Turkey’s ability to withstand the pressures from a resurgent Russia is dubious. So far, Turkey has followed an ambivalent policy and has avoided taking sides. Turkey did not forcefully protest Russia’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions, due to its dependence on Russia for energy supplies and trade, which worried Westerners that Ankara might abandon the West. Erdogan acknowledged this dependence, which made a balanced policy between the United States and Russia necessary, and drew attention to Turkey’s attempts to diversify its energy supplies (Milliyet, September 2).
Turkey’s acquiescent attitude toward Russia, however, received criticism at home. The insensitivity of Russia to Turkey’s concerns in the trade dispute especially led Turkish analysts to argue that Turkey might slowly realize the dangers involved and reassert its place in the Western camp. Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug’s recent remarks about the importance of the Turkish-U.S. alliance are seen as the strongest indicator of such realignment on Turkey’s part (Milliyet, August 31). Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement of new pillars of Russian foreign policy only increases these worries. Veteran analyst Sami Kohen sees it as Russia’s challenge to the uni-polar world order and attempt to translate Russian economic power into political influence. In particular, he expects Russia to capitalize on its monopoly of energy resources and bully the West European countries so that it can divide them and legitimize its fait accompli (Milliyet, September 2).
Even if these broader goals fail, Turkey, on its part, sees the Caucasus initiative as a way of solving bilateral problems with Armenia. In return for being acknowledged by Moscow as a mediator in the Russia-Georgia dispute, Ankara expects Russia in turn to use its influence over Armenia (Today’s Zaman, August 30). The resolution of the conundrum, however, comes down to whether Armenia will reciprocate. With the current status quo favoring Armenia, it remains to be seen how far it will back down in its lingering dispute with Azerbaijan and Turkey.