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Abdullah Gul’s Landmark Visit to Yerevan

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hassan Beheshtipour

Turkish President Abdullah Gul arrived in Yerevan, capital of Armenia on Saturday Sept. 6 in what was described as a “bold move” by many observers. The landmark visit drew the attention of media and diplomatic circles from various points of view.

The Georgian attack on South Ossetia and the Soviet blitzkrieg against Georgia in response to the Georgian attack convinced Turkey to make up its mind concerning regulation of its relations with Yerevan. Ankara is well aware that in order to play a role in the new game started in the Caucasus it would not be able to secure its interests within the framework of new security arrangements without first normalizing its relations with Yerevan. For the same reason, Gul traveled to Yerevan despite opposition from rival political parties in Turkey as well as the government and people of Azerbaijan, to lay the foundation for normalization of bilateral relations without removing previous obstacles. From a geopolitical outlook too, Turkey would need Armenia in order to access the Caucasus because its joint border with Nakhichevan, an autonomous republic separated from its mainland in Azerbaijan, is of vital significance for two very important reasons:

1.    In case of friendly relations with Armenia, Turkey would be able to carry out projects for transportation of goods by railroad as well as energy through oil and gas pipelines via Azerbaijan and Armenia.

2.    By resolving its border issues with Armenia, Turkey would be able to establish a practical link between Nakhichevan and its borders via Armenia with the mainland in Azerbaijan. In this way, after years a land connection would be created between Pan-Turkists of Turkey, Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan. True that materialization of this idea is very unlikely in the short term but the aim could be accomplished in the long run. It is also obvious that Armenia would not give in to Pan-Turkism but it would fully agree to breaking of the siege by its two neighbors. Yerevan is leaving behind 15 years of siege by Azerbaijan and Turkey under conditions that it feels the vicious shadow of full isolation more and more with the development of regional interactions between its rivals. For a country which intends to join European and global structures, it would not be easy to be kept away from important regional projects as well as growing political, economic and security structures in the region. Armenia is well aware that the pivotal role of Turkey in regional interactions and arrangements is increasing day by day and that Ankara has been an indisputable part in all the important regional economic and security developments in recent years. This ranges from Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project to construction of Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway by fully bypassing Armenia from the regional rail link transit, which has intimidated the Yerevan government over its isolation. That is why the idea of normalization of relations with Turkey is being seriously followed up by Armenian officials without any preconditions.

The situation in the region has changed for Armenia after the break in diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia. Until then Georgia was the gateway of Russia to Armenia. This opening has now been closed. As a result, Armenia’s communication routes with the Iranian border have been limited. Therefore, the incentives of Armenia to break the siege have increased. With the new situation, Armenia seems more vulnerable than any other country in the region because it has no access to sea. Moreover, a major portion of its fuel and wheat were transited through Georgian ports in the Black Sea but these operations are now paralyzed due to the Georgian war during which Russia also blew up a railway bridge in Georgia and cut off the rail link for transit of Armenian and Azeri goods.

By establishing relations with Turkey, Armenia hopes to put pressure on Azerbaijan for normalization of relations without finalizing the fate of Karabakh. All these events might also lead to peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan would enable Baku to replace its current oil supply route which is passing through Georgia with a better one, but Karabakh is not something Azerbaijan would easily overlook.

Turkey’s Ambitious Plans in Caucasus

Turkey is the only NATO state in this region which would like to play a more important role after the war in Georgia. Turkey is the main exit route for Azeri oil and gas to the West and is in control of the two Bosphorus and Dardanel Straits which are the two waterways from where Russia and other Black Sea states export their goods. During his visit to Armenia, Abdullah Gul proposed formation of a Caucasus Alliance with membership of Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the United States and apparently excluding Russia and Iran.

Speaking in an interview with Turkish daily “Radical” on his visit to Armenia, Gul said it was an opportunity to settle differences between the two countries. He said he would support any efforts towards realization of peace and that Ankara wanted to resolve all issues with its neighbors. He also said Turkey was not an enemy to any of the countries in the region.

Turning to the Caucasus crisis, Gul noted that the war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia showed that in order to solve the problems in the region and check possible unrest and instability in future, the doors of negotiations must be opened as soon as possible to seek remedies. He also said Turkey has proposed a regional forum be held to bring about stability in the Caucasus.

In another interview with the same newspaper, Armenian President Serge Sarkisyan in response to a question on Armenia’s territorial claims against Turkey and that they consider the whole of East Turkey part of Armenia in their historical map, said: “These individual statements should not become the basis. In Turkey too, there are some who recognize no country called Armenia. If Armenia had territorial claims against Turkey, it would call itself `East Armenia`. Armenia has not preconditioned holding of talks (with Ankara) to official recognition of the Armenian genocide on the orders of Ottoman commanders during World War I.” According to Sarkisyan special committees can be formed under supervision of the two governments after resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries to follow up the case.

Iranian Perspective

The new development in Armenia-Turkey relations is both an opportunity and a threat for Iran. It is a good opportunity for Tehran to take advantage of its good relations with Ankara in strengthening regional cooperation. It is a threat because NATO member Turkey, by getting close to Armenia could limit Iran’s room for maneuvering. Iran cannot and should not be indifferent towards the sudden decision by Turkey that the time was now ripe to open talks with neighboring Armenia in the Caucasus, after one century of hostility. It seems that under the current bizarre situation, Iran must create a coordinated stance and not suffice to voicing concern over escalation of international crises. Under these sensitive conditions that Turkey is engaged in active diplomacy by sending Prime Minister Erdogan to Russia and President Gul to Armenia and holding high-level talks in Azerbaijan and Georgia; and while US vice-president travels to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, why Iran should sit idle?

Iran too can maintain a presence in the Caucasus by arranging periodic visits by the foreign minister or higher level officials. Armenia and its borders play a key and strategic role for Iran. Tehran cannot and should not oppose normalization of relations between Ankara and Yerevan. On the contrary, by understanding the time requirements and geopolitical considerations, Tehran can follow suit with other countries in the region and play a main role in the new security arrangements. Obviously, to be a mere spectator in the important developments in the Caucasus would not serve Iran’s legitimate interests. By bringing up the idea of a neutral, secure and stable Caucasus, Iran can provide a new climate for talks.  

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