YEREVAN, Armenia — Will Turkey’s current turmoil between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the country’s powerful army complicate and delay the country’s boldest initiatives in years — the moves to address decades-old tensions with both Armenians and Kurds?
Restructuring the role of Turkey’s army is vital, but if Turkey cannot follow through with the Armenian and Kurdish openings, then its own domestic situation, its relations with the two peoples and tensions in the Caucasus will undoubtedly worsen.
Of the several flash points in the region, including that between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the tension between Armenians and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is among the most challenging.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani struggle is more precarious. It is no longer a two-way tug of war between two small post-Soviet republics, but part of an Armenia- Turkey-Azerbaijan triangle. This triangle is the direct consequence of the process of normalization between Armenia and Turkey, which began when both countries’ presidents met at a soccer match.
That process now hinges on protocols for establishing diplomatic relations that have been signed by both governments but unratified by either Parliament. Completing the process depends directly and indirectly on how Armenians and Azerbaijan work to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
This snarled three-way dispute, if not carefully untangled, holds many dangers. Turkey, which for nearly two decades has proclaimed its support for Azerbaijan, publicly conditioned rapprochement with Armenia on Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan.
Turkey, a NATO member, is thus a party to this conflict now, and any military flare-up between Armenians and Azerbaijanis might draw it in — possibly triggering Russia’s involvement, either through its bilateral commitments to Armenia, or through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Armenia and Russia are members.
Given energy-security concerns, any Azerbaijani conflict would also seriously affect Europe. Iran, too would be affected, since it is a frontline state with interests in the region.
Armenians and Azerbaijanis have not clashed militarily for more than a decade and a half. But this is only because there has been the perception of a military balance and a hope that ongoing negotiations would succeed.
Today, both factors have changed. The perception of military parity has altered. With Azerbaijan having spent extravagantly on armaments in recent years it may now have convinced itself that it now holds the upper hand. At the same time, there is less hope in negotiations, which appear to be stalled, largely because they have been linked to the Armenia-Turkey process, which also seems to be in limbo.
The diplomatic protocols awaiting ratification by the two countries’ parliaments have fallen victim to miscalculations on both sides. The Armenians came to believe that Turkey would find a way to reconcile Azerbaijan’s interests with the Turkish opening to Armenia, and would open the border with Armenia regardless of progress on resolving the Nagorno- Karabakh issue. The problem is that Turkey initially closed the border precisely because of Nagorno-Karabakh, rather than any bilateral issue.
Turkey believed that by signing protocols with Armenia and clearly indicating its readiness to open the border, the Armenians could somehow be cajoled or pressured into resolving the Nagorno- Karabakh problem more quickly or cede territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. But this has always been unlikely in the absence of a comprehensive settlement that addresses Armenians’ greatest fear — security — and fulfills their basic political requirement, namely a definition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.
Both sides seem to be somewhat surprised by the other’s expectations. Indeed, there is a growing fear that a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is more distant now, because Turkey’s public backing has raised Azerbaijan’s expectations, while some Armenians fear collusion between neighbors out to railroad them into an unsustainable agreement.
This is Turkey’s moment of truth. The Armenia-Turkey diplomatic process has stalled, and the Turkish government’s effort at reconciliation with the country’s large Kurdish minority has soured. Just as a loss of confidence among Kurds and Turks in eastern Turkey will rock the shaky stability that they have recently enjoyed, a loss of hope for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute may end the tentative military calm between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
It is time for both countries’ leaders to speak privately and directly with each other, with an understanding of the instability that could result from any failure to complete the diplomatic opening that the two sides initiated.
Vartan Oskanian was Armenia’s foreign minister from 1998 until 2008. © 2010 Project Syndicate
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