Turkey & Russia spar over influence in Caucasus
Turkey: Challenges To Ankara's Influence in the Caucasus
April 20, 2009 | 1648 GMT
VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Recent top-level meetings between Azerbaijan and Russia revealed the obstacles that Turkey faces in attempting to broaden its sphere of influence in the Caucasus. While Azerbaijan is threatening to move its natural gas eastward toward Russia and edge the Turks out, the Turks are exploring their options with the Europeans while continuing to probe the limits to its cooperation with Russia in the Caucasus.
A series of meetings between top Azerbaijani and Russian officials in Moscow that were held April 16-18 have shed light on what exactly Turkey is up against in trying to enlarge its footprint in the Caucasus.
STRATFOR has been closely tracking negotiations between Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Turkey’s attempt to restore diplomatic relations with Armenia and fortify Ankara’s foothold in the Caucasus was being done under Moscow’s close supervision. Russia was willing to allow Turkey to patch things up with Yerevan, so long as Ankara stayed true to its pledge to remain neutral in Russia’s ongoing tussle with the West.
However, Russia came to doubt Turkey’s intentions when U.S. President Barack Obama made clear to the world during his visit to Ankara in early April that the United States and Turkey were reinvigorating their alliance, and that Washington would be Ankara’s biggest supporter in its regional rise. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, was deeply resentful that its Turkish patrons were leaving Baku out of the negotiations with Armenia and leaving the contentious Nagorno-Karabakh issue out of the deal. As far as Baku is concerned, if Turkey betrays Azerbaijan by striking a deal with Armenia that does not include a demand for Yerevan to return Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, then the Azerbaijanis have no choice but to turn to Moscow to try and keep the Turks in line. So, the Russians invited Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to Moscow for talks.
Aliyev was apparently treated quite well during his three-day trip to Moscow, where he met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, President Dmitri Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin. The Russians allowed Aliyev to vent against Turkey and reassured him that Moscow would stand behind Baku. Shortly after Aliyev’s meetings with Putin and Sechin, he told Russia’s Vesti state television channel in an interview that he would like Russia to serve as a transit state for Azerbaijan to transport natural gas to Europe. In other words, Europe can forget about trying to diversify its energy supply away from Russia through Turkey. With Azerbaijan now shifting into Moscow’s camp due to its recent falling out with Ankara, Aliyev is threatening to send his country’s natural gas east through Russia to reach the Europeans, thereby giving Moscow more political leverage in its energy relationship with Europe.
According to a STRATFOR source in Baku, Aliyev made this statement because Russia and Azerbaijan struck a deal to expand the Soviet-era natural gas pipelines running between the two countries. During the trip, Azerbaijan’s state-owned energy firm SOCAR signed a deal with Gazprom to send natural gas extracted from the second phase of Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz field (which is expected to become operational in November 2009) to Russia and on to Europe. Shah Deniz contains 1.2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves and, in its first phase of production, pumps 8.6 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually, which goes to Europe. The second phase of the field is expected to pump another 8.6 bcm annually. This deal between Azerbaijan and Russia is a major blow to Turkey, who was expecting to sign the Shah Deniz deal at the April 16 Black Sea Economic Cooperation summit in Yerevan so that it could reap more revenues from transiting Azerbaijan’s natural gas to Europe via Greece.
As STRATFOR reported, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier requested to be present at the Russian-Azerbaijani talks in Moscow so that he would not be caught by surprise by any deals between Moscow and Baku (such as the aforementioned Shah Deniz deal) that would edge the Turks out of the energy equation. Though Moscow granted Erdogan’s request to attend the meeting, Erdogan did not show up. Instead, STRATFOR was told that he sent a Turkish delegation to Moscow for talks while he spent the weekend in Hannover, Germany, where he attended former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s birthday party.
During Aliyev’s meeting with the Turkish officials who did show up in Moscow, Aliyev apparently lashed out against Ankara over its perceived betrayal, telling the Turkish delegation “we were supposed to be one nation of two states, yet you have left us in the dark and have now lost our confidence.” Fearful that the Turks would sidestep the Nagorno-Karabakh issue to make the deal with Armenia go through, Aliyev made clear that he could not tolerate Turkey’s refusal to share documents that were being exchanged between Turkey and Armenia that detailed the timetable and conditions attached to normalizing relations. He also expressed his disappointment with the Russians and Europeans for leaving Azerbaijan out of these talks, but Putin and Sechin assuaged him by pointing out that the Russians were the ones bringing Azerbaijan back into the fold. Azerbaijan will follow up with these talks with Russia when Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian travels to Moscow on April 24.
Given Azerbaijan’s threats to cut energy cooperation with Turkey and send its natural gas east toward Russia, the Turks are backing off the Armenia deal for the time being. The timetable for announcing a peace deal has already been delayed indefinitely, and Erdogan made a gesture to Baku when he announced during his trip to Hannover that “a decision to open the border gate with Armenia will depend on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue being solved. If the Armenian occupation of Azeri territory continues, Turkey will not open its border gate.”
Turkey has set the Nagorno-Karabakh condition to temporarily calm Baku, but Ankara is still keeping its options open with Armenia. A STRATFOR source in Baku explained that the Turkish negotiators told Aliyev that Turkey would not be the one mediating Armenian-Azerbaijani talks over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and would not set firm conditions on the Armenians to resolve the territorial dispute. In essence, Turkey is signaling to Baku that it is washing its hands of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue in order to keep its negotiations with Yerevan alive. The Armenians, meanwhile, see the writing on the wall and are privately discussing what to do now that the Turks are clearly waffling on the deal.
The Turks are not about to bend to Russian and Azerbaijani demands that easily. After all, Turkey knows Azerbaijan cannot put all its trust in Moscow, who is backing Baku’s chief rivals in Yerevan simultaneously. Azerbaijan still needs Turkey’s support and is using these talks with Russia to grab Ankara’s attention. At the same time, Turkey wants to test how far it can actually go in cooperating with the Russians in the Caucasus before the Russians feel threatened enough by Ankara’s relationship with the West to pull the plug on the Armenia deal.
Erdogan also wants to see how he can use these negotiations to gain leverage in Turkey’s talks with the Europeans, particularly on energy issues and Turkey’s EU accession bid. If the Europeans get serious about Turkish EU membership, Turkey could find it worthwhile to stand up against Russian wishes in the Caucasus by signing on to energy projects that circumvent the Russian network. Erdogan likely discussed these issues while in Germany, and this will be the main item on the agenda when Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan arrives in Prague on April 21 for an EU-Turkey ministerial meeting. So far, the Turks appear to be unimpressed by the European Union’s recent move to open chapters on taxation and on social policy and employment in its EU membership negotiations. Turkey wants to see the Europeans demonstrate their seriousness in these talks by opening a key chapter on energy and by assuring Ankara that these talks will actually lead somewhere.
Nonetheless, German and French opposition to Turkey’s EU accession will not be easy to overcome, and all it takes is one veto in the EU voting bloc to kill Ankara’s chances of making it into the club should talks even progress that far to begin with. Turkey will take its time to explore its options in Europe while it stalls on Armenia, but the Russians are already laying the groundwork with Azerbaijan to constrain Turkey’s moves in the Caucasus.
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