As the conflict in Georgia over the past two weeks has so demonstrably confirmed, there is a glaring need for stability in the South Caucasus region. As part of a broader Turkish initiative to assert geopolitical influence, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently launched a new bid for bolstering stability and security in the region. Hailed as the "Platform for Stability and Cooperation in the Caucasus," this new Turkish initiative seeks to forge a new cooperative attempt at conflict prevention, multilateral security and regional stability.
Heralding this new initiative, the Turkish prime minister arrived in Baku on August 20 to meet with President Ilham Aliyev and to more clearly define the proposal’s goal for securing the now vulnerable energy export routes running from the Caspian basin to Europe.
The Energy imperative
While one of the most pressing needs is to rapidly resume the flow of oil exports through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, pipeline, closed since August 6 after an explosion damaged the Turkish portion of the pipeline and has not been reopened since the subsequent conflict in Georgia raised fresh security concerns. Although preliminary testing of the Turkish section of the pipeline began on August 18, serious concerns linger, especially as the BTC’s back-up route, the 90,000-barrels-per-day-capacity Baku-Supsa pipeline, has also been shut down after a key railway bridge was destroyed in Georgia.
Erdogan’s Azerbaijan visit comes in the wake of earlier meetings in both Moscow and Tbilisi last week, where he also pressed for support of the new initiative. Most importantly, it is the imperative of stability for energy that is the key to the initiative, as the recent outbreak of hostilities in Georgia has raised new concerns over the viability of not only the BTC and Baku-Supsa pipelines, but also the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural-gas pipeline and the U.S.-EU backed Nabucco gas pipeline project, which proposes bringing an additional 31 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe once operational by 2020.
Mutually positive messages
Although Azerbaijan and Georgia have obvious vested interests in the Turkish proposal driven by their shared energy ties, the exclusion of Armenia from the regional energy infrastructure will only exacerbate the challenge of convincing Armenia of the need to accept and support the initiative. Although this challenge seems to be recognized by Ankara, as seen by Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent statement promising, "We will discuss the project with Armenia to construct a cooperation region with five countries," made at the Turkey-Africa summit in Istanbul, Armenia’seems by no means ready to follow Ankara’s lead without any serious improvement in the two countries’ non-existent relations and closed borders.
Yet there have been some recent signs of optimism from both sides, demonstrated by both Turkey’s relaxation of its air space quota for Armenia in order to ease access for humanitarian aid flows into Georgia via Armenia, and President Abdullah Gul’s August 16 reconciliatory message to Armenia. That statement noted that Turkey is "no enemy" and pointed out that the recent conflict between Georgia and Russia affirms the need for "early measures to resolve frozen problems in the region and … prevent instability in the future." The Turkish president went on to state, "This is our understanding on all problems. We are no enemy to anyone in the region," before reiterating the Turkish proposal to set up a regional forum for stability in the Caucasus.
In addition, after a round of secret talks in Switzerland, there is ample room and even greater necessity for a historic breakthrough in relations between Turkey and Armenia.
If Gul rejects the invitation
But Gul’s conciliatory remarks were not part of an attempt to restore bilateral ties, but were in response to a question on whether he would accept an invitation by Armenian President Serge Sarkisian to go to Yerevan in September to attend a World Cup qualifying match between Turkey and Armenia on September 6. And as he replied that he was still "evaluating the invitation," there is a danger that Armenian public opinion will be angered and disappointed by a Turkish rejection of the invitation, which seems likely at this point.
Such a negative Armenian reaction to a likely Turkish decision not to come to Yerevan would also set back recent Armenian overtures, including an Armenian decision to unilaterally suspend its visa regime with Turkey to facilitate the arrival of Turkish fans for the upcoming first-ever match between the two countries’ national football teams. An earlier and far more significant overture came earlier this summer, when Armenian President Sarkisian signaled his government readiness to accept, in principle, a Turkish proposal to form a joint historical commission, which would theoretically also examine the historical veracity of the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Thus, it seems equally clear that while Ankara is not yet willing or able to tackle its unresolved bilateral problems with Yerevan at this time, Armenia will remain unwilling to accept or support this new Turkish initiative for regional stability. And Armenian public reaction, both within Armenia and its worldwide diaspora, is certain to reject any move to sign up to the Turkish regional initiative prior to the restoration of normal diplomatic relations and the opening of the closed Armenian-Turkish border.