BAKU (Reuters)–Turkish President Suleyman Demirel said on Monday the problems of the Caucasus region could only be solved with the involvement of both Turkey and Russia.
Turkey and its northern neighbor have traditionally vied for influence in the rugged Caucasus area–a rivalry in recent years expressed in the struggle to control lucrative energy export routes and tacit backing for opposing fighting factions.
Demirel was visiting the capital of Azerbaijan–which is engaged in talks over the Karabakh conflict.
While Demirel’s visit centers on multi-billion-dollar oil and gas pipelines–he said he was also laying the groundwork for talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Istanbul starting on November 18.
"It is unthinkable for Turkey to be outside this process but it is also impossible for Russia to be excluded from the solution to the problems here. There can be no peace that excludes Russia," Demirel told reporters.
Turkey looks to the Caucasus–and oil-rich Azerbaijan in particular–as a key link to the Central Asian states it sees as historic and ethnic brothers. The Soviet Union ruled the mountainous region for decades and Russia now sees it as crucial to the security of its southern flank.
Russian forces are pounding suspected rebel bases in Chechnya in the North Caucasus to crush Islamist militants it holds responsible for a wave of deadly bomb attacks in Russian towns and cities.
Demirel made no reference to the Chechen conflict but made it clear that Turkey was determined to influence the future of the south Caucasus at least.
"With the peace that will come to this region–Turkey can grab the chance for greater economic cooperation," he said.
Armenia and Karabakh now insist that the breakaway region retain its de facto independence but formally preserve Azerbaijan’s borders.
Azerbaijan has previously rejected this–saying the enclave could be granted wide-ranging autonomy within its own borders.