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You are here: Home > Publications > The Turkish Moment: unenviable job or great opportunity?

The Turkish Moment: unenviable job or great opportunity?

Ziba Norman, 11 September 2008

Istanbul and the Bosphorus from the air

Photograph: Istanbul and the Bosphorus from the air (William Arthurs)

In the immediate aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War, Turkey finds itself in the unenviable position of holding the key to re-establishing balance in the region.

Aware that frozen conflicts in the Caucasus presented clear danger for major powers to clash on Turkey’s doorstep, and in the belief that there might be little time left to avert a disaster, Turkey's President Gul (before hostilities began in Georgia) began attempts to open dialogue with Armenia. Turkey's border to Armenia has been closed since 1993 when it fought a war with Azerbaijan over the region, which is internationally recognised to be part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh.

On 6 September 2008 President Gul visited Yerevan at the invitation of Armenian President Sargsyan to watch a soccer World Cup qualifying game between the two nations. Yesterday they announced that talks will be held later this month between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, in an attempt to settle the dispute.

The urgency could not be greater as the war in Georgia has caused disruptions to Armenian supplies that normally flow through Georgia. Armenia's economic prosperity has been hampered by the extended closure of the Turkish border, and was avoided altogether by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, so there should be keen motivation on their side. But there are sensitive issues that must be worked through if negotiations are to be successful:

And these points are just the peripherals.

The war between Russia and Georgia will certainly have served to focus the attention of Armenia and Azerbaijan on the need to unite the Caucasus. As an area in the marchlands between power blocs, it is uniquely vulnerable to exploitation for geopolitical gain, and has historically been caught in the crossfire between empires.

Armenia is close to Russia, and though the Russians will publicly appear pleased about the negotiations, in private they will be aware that a rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia could diminish their control in the region and also offer alternatives for energy transiting in the future. It will be interesting to watch the trajectory of these talks and Russia's reactions.

If a solution can be reached here it would be of incalculable benefit, especially to Armenia, which would have great opportunities opened to it to conduct trade with the West and plot its own future.

Turkey’s great dilemma

Russia have made overtures to the Iranians for placement of bases within Iran, the two areas being discussed are: in Azerbaijani Iran and on Qeshm Island held by Iran in the Persian Gulf. Such moves would create a genuine power shift in the region, with Russia being able to monitor US vessels in the Persian Gulf and activities in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia. In effect a strategic partnership would be formed between Russia and Iran, which might develop into a wider alliance over time. It could even become Russia's long desired counter-balance to NATO.

So where does Turkey fit in and what pitfalls lay ahead as she ties to maintain relations with Russia -- Turkey's main trading partner and supplier of three quarters of its energy -- and NATO.

Turkey has already been in a difficult position, attempting to remain neutral in the conflict between Georgia and Russia. Turkey controls the Bosphorus and Dardanelles through which all ships passing into the Black Sea must pass: the Montreux Convention of 1936 governs the size of vessels and duration of stay.

NATO have sent ships to Georgian ports with humanitarian aid, and already the Russians have launched formal complaints about their right to be present -- straining relations between Russia and Turkey.

In characteristic fashion, the Russians have retaliated by imposing new regulations, causing Turkish goods to be delayed at Russian borders. This move has cost Turkey upwards of 500 million dollars thus far and counting.

But the plot thickens. With Russia making advances towards Iran for placement of military bases, the Russian presence in Sevastopol (Ukraine) and their plans to have a permanent naval presence on the Black Sea coast in Abkhazia (which they have formally recognised as an independent nation just 10 days ago) there are calls for counter-balancing forces to be placed in Poti/ Batumi (Georgia).

The Montreux Treaty would have to be amended to permit this. Broadly the current provisions of the treaty limit the time ships may remain in the Black Sea to 21 days: the creation of a permanent naval presence would be in contravention of this.

Turkey has never wanted to be in a position where a choice has had to be made between Russia and NATO. Applying pressure on Turkey in this respect is likely to be counter-productive, and will only show up faultlines in the alliance, which Russia would certainly like to expose and exploit -- one of its aims at the outset of the aggression in Georgia. Apart from this it might weaken Turkey at a critical moment in its history. Remember it was only this summer that a constitutional crisis was averted by a narrow margin, allowing the ruling party to remain in office.

Turkey needs to be given time to work behind the scenes, and ruffle as few feathers as possible. They have operated as mediator between Syria and Israel and they may also be able to operate successfully as mediators between Iran and the West. It is certainly a relationship Iran would be interested in pursuing -- as a border country it might provide an outlet for Iran to pump oil westward, something they have long been desirous of.

Pressing for a decision to create permanent bases now may only heighten tensions without making the region safer, and there must be other ways of maintaining a presence in the Black Sea, without making a long term commitment, escalating tensions and perhaps weakening Turkey in the process.

Given the correct incentives Iran may be persuaded to change course, and may decide it is in its best long term interests to work with Turkey. Of course there are great obstacles to work through, eg, Iran's nuclear programme supported by Russia. In the long term Iran knows that its economic prospects if it can move westward would be exceptional.

This is a turning point for the region, and Russia may yet be surprised by the outcome. As Bertolt Brecht said, maybe the darkness we see is light.


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