Should we be retracing the Caucasian (chalk) circle anew?

Should we be retracing the Caucasian (chalk) circle anew?

Ünal Çeviköz*
It was December 21, 1991. In Moscow, eleven former members of the Soviet Union declared the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia were among them. Suddenly, the USSR was no more and Turkey had three new neighbors in the South Caucasus. Physical geography was still the same but the political geography had altered. The new game in the South Caucasus started overnight.

Turkey immediately recognized the three new members of the international community and extended her helping hand to all, without discrimination. Since then, Turkey has developed extensive relations with Georgia and Azerbaijan in the last 24 years of their independence. Yet, Turkey has been unable to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia. Moreover, the land border between the two countries has remained closed since 1993. Attempts to normalize Turkey-Armenia relations in 2008-2009 ended up with the signing of two protocols on diplomatic and good-neighborly relations but those efforts remained in vain, as the two instruments got stuck in the parliaments of both countries on their way to ratification. Today, it is hard to claim that Turkey has a holistic policy on the South Caucasus, mainly due to lack of its equidistance to all three Caucasus republics. 

This is not the only failure in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan and Armenia are officially at war and the latter keeps 20% of the former’s territory under occupation. Georgia, after its war with Russia in August 2008, has lost two autonomous republics from its territory, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, now self-declared independent entities, albeit recognized by the Russian Federation. After almost a quarter of a century, the region maintains its post-Cold War conflicts unresolved. World powers and international organizations are helpless, if not useless, to offer lasting peace, order and stability to the region. As the conflicts remain unresolved, tension gradually escalates, particularly at the Azeri-Armenian cease-fire line and puts the security of the region, including its neighborhood, in serious danger. Is there a way out?

“Retracing the Caucasian Circle: Considerations and Constraints for the U.S., EU, and Turkish Engagement in the South Caucasus” is the title of a recent Brookings Institute report presented publicly in Washington on July 15. The report was prepared by the “Center on the United States and Europe” (CUSE) of Brookings, based on its Turkey Project launched in 2004. In collaboration with the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSIAD), Brookings instituted a U.S.-Turkey forum. The recently launched report belongs to the Turkey Policy Paper Series published in this context.

In a metaphorical Brechtian title, the report analyzes policies of the U.S., EU and Turkey in South Caucasus. Admitting that they once had activist roles in regional affairs in this geography, the report emphasizes a certain disengagement of these three powers, due to various reasons, which resulted with South Caucasus states being now, at best, second-tier issues for them. Yet, they all remain closely connected to first-tier problems prevailing in the neighborhood and international arena in general. It is necessary for the U.S., EU and Turkey, therefore, to reengage. The problem now is that the current atmosphere in international relations is different, the perspective for the South Caucasus States’ integration with Euro-Atlantic mechanisms has eroded and regional elites have lost confidence in Western policies. Regrettably, the U.S., EU and Turkey have been unable to coordinate their individual efforts in the region in the past. Today, they realize and underline the importance of synergy their potentials could create. Can they do it now?

It is true that the region lacks appropriate regional institutions because the unresolved conflicts preclude their creation. As formal and useless official efforts and mechanisms no longer bring any outcome, the report comes forward with an offer to focus on the development of “soft regionalism” in the South Caucasus. This concept would proceed through building on some of the already existing confidence building measures and initiatives in the region with a view to encourage trade and commerce, civil society contacts, and conflict management. 

The world is changing rapidly. Actors such as China and Iran are no longer outside observers in the South Caucasus region and they intend to become new stakeholders. Soft regionalism, even if it is intended to bring the countries of the region together under a certain commonality of interests, will definitely have to recognize such new stakeholders as well. If revisited, Turkey’s initiative of Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, launched in 2008, could certainly help the formulation of new approaches to the region, particularly with the new understanding of soft regionalism. Turkey, together with the U.S. and EU, is still in the best suitable position to help realize the interest of the region’s countries in their vocation for integration with the international community. Brookings, with this report, has put forth an encouraging vision and opportunity for the South Caucasus not to be missed. Turkey, if it corrects its misdemeanors in the region by establishing just, egalitarian and equidistant policies to all its three Caucasian neighbors, will become a major honest-broker in this new environment. If it only believed in the magic of civil society...

* Ünal Çeviköz is the former Turkish ambassador to the UK.