Time for Turkey to Be Visionary in the South Caucasus
Time for Turkey to Be Visionary in the South Caucasus
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

Time for Turkey to Be Visionary in the South Caucasus

Optimism about the normalisation of Turkey-Armenia bilateral relations, so prevalent on 22 April when the two countries announced that they had agreed on a comprehensive framework for reconciliation, has suddenly faded. Normalisation would include opening of the Turkey-Armenia border, establishing diplomatic relations, and setting up of bilateral commissions to deal with multiple issues, including the historical dimension of their relations. It first seemed that these steps could be accomplished by Autumn 2009. Now they may be delayed for years.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan put a brake on the reconciliation effort when in Baku on 13 May, he did not mince his words: “the closure of the [Turkey-Armenia] border is a result of the [Armenian] occupation in Karabakh […] until the occupation ends, the border gates will remain closed.”

The occupation of some 13.5 per cent of Azerbaijan’s territory by Armenian-backed forces started in 1992, when Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave which was an Armenian majority autonomous region of Azerbaijan in Soviet times. Since the signing of a 1994 ceasefire, there has been no pulling back by any of the armed forces, and the ceasefire line remains an active front line where there are regular casualties.

Since 1993, Turkey has maintained a policy of keeping its border with Armenia closed until Armenian forces withdraw largely due to its wish to express its respect for historical and ethnic ties with Azerbaijan. The closed-border policy had no impact on Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh stance, and arguably made Armenia less likely to withdraw in exchange for peace; Turkey’s threatening posture did however cost it considerable political capital in the U.S. and Europe. But in 2008, after several years of secretive talks between Turkey and Armenia, it seemed as though Ankara had foresightedly de-linked its relations with Armenia from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey appeared ready to re-open its border with Armenia as part of a broader normalization package with its immediate neighbour — in exchange for Yerevan’s recognition of Turkey’s current borders and participation in a commission to analyze their historical differences, including about the great massacre of Ottoman Armenians of 1915.

This visionary policy shift not only had the potential to help resolve one of the most strained relationships between two European countries since World War I but also to open new transport and communication links in the strategic South Caucasus. It was backed by Russia, and even more strongly by U.S. President Obama during his visit to Turkey in March.

For Turkey, breaking with its former tried and failed policy, normalising with Armenia offers an opportunity to become a strategic player in the South Caucasus. It has had success in establishing discussions through a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, but it will have difficulty promoting and leading this as long as it blockades one of the countries that participates. It wants to cooperate as equal partners with Russia in the South Caucasus, in political and economic spheres, but it will be limited unless it is seen as even handed.

Russia, which has signed a collective security arrangement with Armenia, has understood this over the past several months and repeated its overtures to Azerbaijan in a host of fields. Turkey is interested in supporting the ongoing OSCE Minsk Process to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but it cannot be a neutral broker while it openly supports one of the conflicting sides. Finally an open Turkey-Armenia border is likely to have the immediate effect of ending Armenian perceptions of encirclement by hostile Turkic peoples, and making them more likely to withdraw from territories around Nagorno-Karabakh now retained as security guarantees. These are the messages that Turkey’s leaders should be sending to their Azerbaijani counterparts, rather than nationalist pledges to remain “one nation in two states.”

Instead, Turkey seems on the verge of giving up these benefits, halting the momentum towards reconciliation and returning to its traditional positions. This strengthens arguments that it only used the promise of normalisation in its talks with Armenia to delay U.S. genocide recognition, especially by President Obama, on 24 April. But Turkey should not allow its Armenia policy to be held hostage to the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate or to Azerbaijani blackmail. Baku is now threatening to sell natural gas from its still-to-be-developed Shahdeniz 2 field to Russia, instead of Turkey, but it is likely to do this regardless of Turkey’s relations with Armenia, if Russia offers it a better pricing and transit deal.

There is no doubt that progress on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would enhance Turkey’s ability to normalise relations with Armenia and stability in the South Caucasus. But Ankara’s best chance of bringing a new positive momentum to the process is precisely by normalising with Armenia. It is quite wrong in believing that with its traditional policy it can have any impact on the talks mediated since 1992 by the OSCE Minsk Group, led by its French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs, and more specifically since 2005 with the aim of obtaining agreement on a 2-3 page document on basic principles.

Regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, the best that can be expected any time this year is agreement on these basic principles, and the mediators sound optimistic about a possible breakthrough. Another meeting of the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents is expected in Saint Petersburg around 4-6 June. But there is a long-running stalemate over several issues, including the modalities of a plan to hold a referendum to determine Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status and the status and size of a possible corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia in the Lachin district. Once an agreement on basic principles is signed, lengthy and difficult talks await the sides to reach a comprehensive settlement leading to the start of actual withdrawals.

If Turkey plans to wait until this occurs, it will remain on the sidelines for many years to come in the South Caucasus, allowing the U.S., EU and especially Russia to maintain the lead in its own backyard.

Podcast / Global

Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to expert Eleonora Tafuro, a research fellow at ISPI, to make sense of the complicated relationship between Russia and Turkey that has veered from collaborative to adversarial, often landing somewhere in between.

Russia and Turkey’s complex relationship sometimes baffles outside observers. In many respects, Turkey and Russia are fierce competitors: Moscow and Ankara back opposing camps in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey is a member of NATO – the alliance Russia views as both adversary and threat. Nevertheless, this has not prevented collaboration between the two powers, who share profound economic and cultural ties and have made concerted efforts to deepen diplomatic relations, often to the frustration of Turkey's Western allies. 

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at ISPI, about Russo-Turkish relations. Eleonora helps unpack the two countries’ complex relationship and sketch out the deep economic and cultural ties connecting them, as well as the numerous sources of tension pitting Ankara against Moscow. She discusses Turkey’s juggling act in balancing relations with the EU and the Kremlin, and how Russo-Turkish relations and soft power shape geopolitics in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. Mainly recorded prior to the massive invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February, this episode also includes a brief addendum to reflect those events.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

N.B. Please note that this episode was recorded in late January 2022.

For more on Turkish foreign policy, check out our Turkey regional page. For analysis on the Ukraine crisis and its global implications, make sure to explore our Ukraine page and read our latest Q&A: “The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis”.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.