Nothing new in the Caucasian Triangle
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit to Yerevan on Dec. 12 to attend the Council Meeting of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation briefly focused the attention of regional experts to the Turkey-Armenia-Azerbaijan triangle. The visit was perceived, and in fact presented by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, as a signal for Turkey’s wish to start the thawing process in Turkish-Armenian relations. It was the first high-level visit from Turkey to Armenia since the two countries tried to patch up their relations in 2009 with two protocols and failed to pass them through their Parliaments, leaving behind a bitter aftertaste. Azerbaijan vehemently opposed the protocols from that time, and since then has been able to create further inroads in Turkey through additional energy projects, new investments, public diplomacy attack and new political connections.
Although not confirmed officially, rumors were circulated on the eve of Davutoğlu’s visit that Turkey might reconsider establishing diplomatic relations and opening one of the border crossings with Armenia in return for its withdrawal from two of the seven occupied Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh. However, nothing new came out of the visit except a few goodwill messages.
Perhaps nothing could have been expected, as the memory of the failure from the latest attempt is still alive for both sides. What was left behind from that debacle was the statement from the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, linking the opening of the border between the two countries to ending the occupation of Azerbaijani territory, and reservations and cautioning of the Armenian Constitutional Court against the implementation of the protocols.
Up until Erdoğan’s visit to Baku in May 2009, Turkey always cited a “move towards the right direction” in Nagorno-Karabakh as an impetus for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. The main reason behind raising a “solution” of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem as precondition, which the protocols carefully left untouched, was closely related with Azerbaijan’s objections and tough reaction.
Turkey realized then that such a venture with Armenia at the expense of Turkish-Azerbaijani ties would be more costly, especially considering the energy connection, and backed down, shelving the protocols without ratification.
If anything, Azerbaijan’s hold on Turkey has increased over the last few years. In addition to going ahead with the Trans-Anatolia Gas Pipeline (TANAP) project, the two countries signed further energy cooperation agreements. The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), the main Azerbaijani partner on TANAP, is also investing in refineries, aiming to increase its share in Turkey’s petrochemical products market, from current 25 percent to 40 percent by 2018. It’s investment into STAR Refinery will make it the biggest private sector investment in the history of the Republic of Turkey.
These, together with buying a Turkish media group, establishing a think tank and various high level forums, as well as creating further cooperation channels with Turkish experts closed to the government, Azerbaijan has managed to create an environment in Turkey where the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations will heavily depend Azerbaijan’s reaction, as well as the willingness of both sides and the helpful encouragement of third parties, such as Russia and the U.S.
Although the normalization of the relations ahead of 2015 would help ease potential international pressure on Turkey, especially from the U.S., the time constraint, Azerbaijan’s objections and election season in Turkey make it difficult to make critical decisions on such a sensitive issue. Under the circumstances, Davutoğlu’s visit might not be enough to create a fresh start in Turkish-Armenian relations.