Azerbaijan’s spanner in the works

The search for a rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan is a delicate matter and no one on either side has any doubts that this process will have to be conducted with the utmost care and delicacy.

The reason is that there is a public opinion aspect that can not be overlooked. The Turkish public remains wary of things to do with the Armenians, as long as the international campaign for genocide recognition continues to be spearheaded by the Armenian diaspora and supported by the administration in Yerevan, and there are direct or indirect references in key Armenian documents smacking of "revanchism."

On the other hand the latest poll conducted by the Ararat Strategic Center in Yerevan indicates that 61 percent of the Armenian public is against the normalization of ties with Turkey. According the Armen Ayvazian, the director of the center, only 11 percent of those questioned supported the government’s efforts to seek rapprochement with Ankara. The Turkish side has also been aware of the sensitivities on the Azerbaijani side, given the unresolved dispute this country has with Armenia over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, which was occupied by Armenian forces shortly after the two countries gained independence from Moscow.

This is why Ankara has also been eyeing the so called "Minsk process," which is searching for a settlement to this seemingly intractable dispute, and which includes not just the U.S. and Russia, but also European powers such as France and Germany. Turkey is also part of the process, though on the fringes because of its close ties with Azerbaijan.

Given the sensitive nature of the issue, due to the factors cited above, Ankara and Yerevan have chosen the path of quiet diplomacy in their effort to overcome differences. The importance of this process increased after the Russian invasion and division of Georgia last summer, making the need for a normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia even more necessary for a host of objective reasons - even if public opinion in both countries remains opposed to this.

On the Turkish side a stable situation in the Southern Caucasus is closely linked with Turkey’s long term strategic interests, mainly in terms of security for energy lines. It is also a fact that a rapprochement with Armenian disarms the Armenian Diaspora in the West to a large extent - in itself efforts to undermine Turkey - given that Ankara’s interests in the region overlap with those of Europe and the United States.

On the Armenian side, it is a fact that not having relations with Turkey has consolidated Armenia’s regional isolation, keeping it out of key energy and communication projects, and deepening the country’s continuing economic woes. While Yerevan looks to the diaspora for a host of reasons, it is also a fact that lack of ties with Turkey has prevented it establishing the concrete bridges it wants with the West, finding itself to be increasingly reliant on Russia instead.

Azerbaijan however has been the wild card in this search for rapprochement. This is why Ankara felt the need to inform Baku of the details of the process with Yerevan at the highest level in order to allay misunderstandings. This writer was personally with President Gul and Foreign Minister Babacan on their visits to Baku for this purpose.

It appears however that Turkish diplomacy underestimated the extent to which Baku is prepared to go to spoil a process that it sees as detrimental to its own interests, even if this is going to cast a shadow on its ties with the AKP government. Acting on the basis of press reports in the West, to the effect that Turkey is on the verge of opening its borders with Armenia (these were closed after the invasion of Karabakh - as well as Azerbaijani lands outside the enclave - by Armenian forces) Azerbaijani officials and politicians started a "Turkey is stabbing us in the back campaign."

There was of course a cynical calculation in this effort to hit below the belt because Baku knows full well it can mobilize ultranationalist sentiment in Turkey with such a campaign. It also knows that this campaign can be used by the opposition in Turkey to try and hurt the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and Prime Minister Erdogan.

As matters turned out Baku was successful in throwing the spanner in the works in this way, forcing Prime Minister Erdogan to say that there will be no normalization with Yerevan until the Karabakh issue is resolved. This basically means that there will be no normalization in the near future given that no one is expecting a miracle in terms of an early settlement to the Karabakh problem. This situation will in turn leave the Erdogan Government facing difficulties in its dealings with the West, given that much hope is invested in Europe and the United States in a normalization of ties between Ankara and Yerevan. It is also clear that the Armenian Diaspora will benefit from this outcome since it never liked the attempt at rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia anyway, seeing this as a mere ploy by Turkey to try and bury the genocide issue.

It is very unlikely that there will be much love lost between the AKP administration and Baku over this turn of events. What has irked the Erdogan government more than anything is that Azerbaijani diplomacy, no doubt acting on the left-over Machiavellian instincts from the Soviet era of high suspicion, decided to conduct its business on the basis of speculative press reports. rather than rely on its official contacts with Ankara. But the picture is not so clear as far as Azerbaijan is concerned. While it may be cozying up to Moscow now, in an apparent retaliatory move against Turkey and the US, it is unlikely that the Russians will ever allow it to realize its ambition of getting back Karabakh by force. Some Azerbaijanis may be deluding themselves now, but many recall the Russian involvement in the fall of Karabakh to the Armenians in the first place.

So, while Baku may have thrown the spanner in the works in a process which, had it displayed better diplomatic wisdom, might have brought it gains as well in terms of the talks over Nagorno Karabakh, it remains to be seen if it comes out of the situation it has created impulsively with any gains worth talking about.
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