Where does the South Cau­ca­sus stand in the re­gional ri­valry?

Turkish Review - - THINK TANKS - İSA AFA­CAN,

For much of the past four years, Turkey’s for­eign pol­icy has been tremen­dously pre­oc­cu­pied with the spillover of the Arab Spring in its im­me­di­ate neigh­bor­hood. Once touted as a ‘role model’ to its Mid­dle Eastern peers for its flour­ish­ing econ­omy, democ­racy and for­eign pol­icy, Turkey is now -- due in large part to the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the Arab Spring -- deeply en­tan­gled with a se­ries of com­plex prob­lems at home and abroad The wor­ry­ing re­gres­sion from pos­i­tive eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and for­eign pol­icy are­nas sig­nals the fact that Turkey will likely face a draw­down in its am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ings in those ar­eas. Even be­fore, there is one par­tic­u­lar for­eign pol­icy field that has fallen be­hind the hi­er­ar­chy of the Turk­ish for­eign pol­icy agenda in early 2010s: The South Cau­ca­sus, con­sist­ing of Ar­me­nia, Azer­bai­jan and Ge­or­gia. This is­sue’s Think Tank Tracker re­views sev­eral past re­ports on the po­si­tions of Turkey and other ma­jor stake­hold­ers on the sub­ject and tries to an­swer the ques­tion of how chief ac­tors fare in their ac­tions re­gard­ing the South Cau­ca­sus. The re­view aims to ex­plain en­dur­ing pat­terns of ri­valry and co­op­er­a­tion.

The Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (CSIS) re­port ba­si­cally looks at the an­gle of the South Cau­ca­sus and Turkey as part of the play­ing field for US-Ira­nian com­pe­ti­tion. 1 At the very be­gin­ning the au­thors as­sert that Turkey is “par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal” of Wash­ing­ton-Tehran strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion rel­a­tive to the South Cau­ca­sus. Even though Turkey has firmly sit­u­ated it­self within the West­ern se­cu­rity and eco­nomic struc­ture for more than six decades, Ankara’s trade with Tehran climbed from $1.25 bil­lion in 2002 to $16.05 bil­lion in 2011. In 2011, Turkey also im­ported 50 per­cent of its oil and 21 per­cent of its nat­u­ral gas from Iran. Turkey’s de­pen­dence on Ira­nian fos­sil fuel com­pli­cates Ankara’s re­la­tions with the West, the US in par­tic­u­lar. The gold-for-oil barter sys­tem, used as a way for Tehran to cir­cum­vent UN sanc­tions, may in­flict pain on Ankara. 2 As has been made clear in Think Tank Tracker in pre­vi­ous is­sues, one of the most sig­nif­i­cant stick­ing points for Iran and Turkey is the on­go­ing civil war in Syria and the two coun­tries’ di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed po­si­tions. “For Iran, Syria is its crit­i­cal ac­cess point to the Le­vant and the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict and its only con­stant ally -- glob­ally or re­gion­ally -- since the 1979 revo­lu­tion.” 3

The Ira­nian, Rus­sian and Ot­toman em­pires com­peted for the South Cau­ca­sus through­out his­tory. To­day, Iran, Turkey, Rus­sia and the US play ma­jor roles. The US has three crit­i­cal geopo­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests in the re­gion: “Se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity, de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion, and eco­nomic ac­cess, to both the re­gion’s un­der­uti­lized nat­u­ral re­sources and the nascent in­fra­struc­ture cor­ri­dor for trans­port­ing Cen­tral Asian prod­ucts west while avoid­ing Iran and Rus­sia.” 4 For Iran, re­gional coun­tries like Ge­or­gia and Ar­me­nia are too small, and are shel­tered rel­a­tively well against Ira­nian pro­pa­ganda.

More is at stake for Tehran in the cases of the Caspian Basin’s oil wealth and Iran’s eth­nic and sec­tar­ian con­flicts with Azer­bai­jan. Even though Azer­bai­jan is a strictly secular na­tion, com­po­nents of its Mus­lim de­mog­ra­phy paint a com­pli­cated pic­ture. A to­tal of 95 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is Mus­lim. Eighty-five per­cent of the Mus­lims are Shia and 15 per­cent Sunni. 5 This gives Azer­bai­jan the world’s sec­ond-largest Shia pop­u­la­tion per­cent­age af­ter Iran. The secular regime in Baku fears Ira­nian Shia po­lit­i­cal/re­li­gious ide­ol­ogy in­fil­trat­ing its ter­ri­tory and con­sid­ers it a clear and present dan­ger to its sur­vival. To off­set Tehran’s re­li­gious lever­age, “Baku em­pha­sizes Az­eri na­tion­al­ism over Is­lamic sol­i­dar­ity and has sought to re­move reli­gion from the public sphere.” For the US, good re­la­tions with Azer­bai­jan are key for re­gional sta­bil­ity and en­ergy se­cu­rity. Azer­bai­jan per­ceives “Amer­ica pri­mar­ily as an ex­tra-re­gional source of diplo­matic sup­port and weapons sup­plier, and as a source of in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture and eco­nomic growth.” 6

Of the South Cau­casian states, Ar­me­nia has the strong­est re­la­tion­ship with Iran. Iran rec­og­nizes Ar­me­nia as one of the gate­ways to world’s fi­nan­cial sys­tem. Hence, the US is con­cerned that Yere­van’s weak state sys­tem and elite dom­i­nance may sub­mit to Tehran’s at­tempt to evade in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions through Ar­me­nia’s trou­bled bank­ing sys­tem.

When it comes to Ge­or­gia, it is play­ing a less of a role in this com­pe­ti­tion. Ge­or­gia is pre­oc­cu­pied with its sep­a­ratist re­gions of Abk­hazia and South Os­se­tia. For Wash­ing­ton, the big con­cern is Rus­sia’s power pro­jec­tion and Tbil­isi, for all the right rea­sons, is try­ing to at­tach it­self to the West to dodge Rus­sia’s ex­cesses. Ge­or­gia also found it­self -- like Ar­me­nia -- be­tween Iran and the US on the is­sue of Iran us­ing Ge­or­gian banks to re­lease its hands tied by sanc­tions in terms of ac­cess­ing fi­nan­cial mar­ket. The CSIS re­port un­der­lines the fact that the South Cau­ca­sus is not the cen­tral lo­ca­tion of the ri­valry be­tween Iran and the US com­pared to other re­gions, for ex­am­ple the Mid­dle East.

The sec­ond CSIS re­port as­sesses the tri­an­gu­la­tion of the re­gion’s ma­jor pow­ers -- Rus­sia, Iran and Turkey. 7 Hav­ing a de­cid­edly Amer­i­can per­spec­tive, the re­port ar­gues that un­der­stand­ing the dy­nam­ics be­tween the three would help in “avoid­ing a wider war in the Mid­dle East, re­newed con­flict in the Cau­ca­sus, and in­sta­bil­ity in Cen­tral Asia.” 8 Hav­ing a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing would en­able the US to ef­fec­tively en­gage with the Syr­ian civil war and Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions, the re­port claims. Rus­sia is Turkey’s top trade part­ner in the re­gion, with trade to­tal­ing $30 bil­lion in 2012, of which 80 per­cent is Turkey’s en­ergy im­ports in the form of oil and nat­u­ral gas. When com­bined with en­ergy im­ports from Iran, Turkey is deeply de­pen­dent on for­eign oil and gas in the re­gion. De­spite its noted West­ern ori­en­ta­tion, this heavy de­pen­dence on Iran and Rus­sia se­ri­ously im­pairs its op­tions in for­eign pol­icy. Turkey’s ef­forts to di­ver­sify its ac­cess to al­ter­na­tive en­ergy sources from Azer­bai­jan, Turk­menistan and Iraq meet op­po­si­tion from both Tehran and Moscow.

Rus­sian-Ira­nian re­la­tions rep­re­sent the con­ver­gence of mu­tual in­ter­ests in terms of coun­ter­bal­anc­ing US dom­i­nance in the re­gion. Both Tehran and Moscow have dif­fer­ing po­si­tions re­gard­ing the de­mar­ca­tion of the Caspian Sea but both op­pose the con­struc­tion of a trans-Caspian pipe­line that would un­der­cut their dom­i­nance in en­ergy poli­cies. Mean­while, they per­ceive each other as long-term com­peti­tors in the Euro­pean mar­ket. 9 In fact, both cap­i­tals are se­ri­ous ri­vals in ex­port­ing oil and nat­u­ral gas in Eura­sia but nei­ther wants to see more US pen­e­tra­tion into their spheres of in­flu­ence. In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, it is im­por­tant to note that bi­lat­eral trade is slim, and “Rus­sia ac­counts for about 1.8 per­cent of Ira­nian for­eign trade vol­ume, and Iran rep­re­sents only 0.5 per­cent of Rus­sia’s.” 10

On the is­sue of the South Cau­ca­sus, both Iran and Turkey see the re­gion as a domain with a Soviet le­gacy, and nei­ther wants to pro­voke Rus­sia’s sus­pi­cion. While Turkey tried to pro­mote more in­ter­de­pen­dence in the re­gion, its ef­forts to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Ar­me­nia in 2009 proved de­funct. There­fore, Turkey en­gaged closely with Azer­bai­jan as both aimed at coun­ter­bal­anc­ing Ira­nian reach in the re­gion. On the other hand, Iran is strate­gi­cally aligned with Ar­me­nia but is cau­tious on the is­sue of Nagorno-Karabakh, a sen­si­tive na­tional is­sue for Azer­bai­jan. What is strik­ing is that this CSIS re­port claims that some Rus­sian of­fi­cials worry that Turkey might turn back its at­ten­tion to the South Cau­ca­sus if its deep en­gage­ment in the Mid­dle East fails. 11 In ad­di­tion, Rus­sia is con­cerned over the pos­si­ble spillover of Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists from the


re­gion to the Cau­ca­sus and is scru­ti­niz­ing the poli­cies of in­ter­ested par­ties re­gard­ing the Syr­ian civil war. Last, the CSIS re­port un­der­scores the fact that Iran sees the South Cau­ca­sus as a “side show,” mean­ing that it is an­cil­lary to its vi­tal strate­gic in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East.

The third re­port, from the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics (LSE), suc­cinctly ex­am­ines Turkey’s South Cau­ca­sus strat­egy and em­pha­sizes Turkey’s role in the South Cau­ca­sus as part of its larger strat­egy to deal with Rus­sia. 12 For Kevork Oska­nian, Turkey has “be­come more def­er­en­tial to­wards Rus­sia’s re­gional geo-strate­gic in­ter­ests -- a def­er­ence that in­creased in par­al­lel with an en­hanced in­de­pen­dence from the West with the ad­vent of the [Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment Party] AKP gov­ern­ment in 2003.” 13 This means Turkey wants to “main­tain the ex­ist­ing sta­tus quo, as well as to avoid of­fend­ing Rus­sian sen­si­bil­i­ties.” 14 Turkey has tried to in­crease its eco­nomic en­gage­ment with Ge­or­gia but un­equiv­o­cally re­frains from an­tag­o­niz­ing Rus­sia on po­lit­i­cal is­sues. Oska­nian briefly chron­i­cled Turkey’s pro-ac­tive en­gage­ment -so-called “foot­ball diplo­macy” -- with Ar­me­nia in 2009 but pointed out the fact that it failed due to Turkey’s do­mes­tic re­ac­tions and Azer­bai­jani op­po­si­tion to the thaw. Turkey con­nected the is­sue of Turk­ish-Ar­me­nian rap­proche­ment to the res­o­lu­tion of Nagorno-Karabakh, a vi­tal Azer­bai­jani na­tional in­ter­est. Due to Turkey’s ethno-lin­guis­tic prox­im­ity to Azer­bai­jan and both sides’ mas­sive eco­nomic com­mit­ments, the rap­proche­ment be­tween Yere­van and Ankara has died. In­creas­ing the eco­nomic in­ter­de­pen­dence be­tween Baku and Ankara via the Baku-Tbil­isi-Cey­han (BTC) pipe­line and other in­vest­ments like PETKIM has re­newed Turkey’s fo­cus on Azer­bai­jan to cau­tiously coun­ter­bal­ance Iran and Rus­sia.

Over­all, Turkey’s lever­age in the South Cau­ca­sus is rather limited but there is still room for eco­nomic en­gage­ment. Turkey’s re­la­tions with Rus­sia and Iran are limited in scope and trans­ac­tional in na­ture. Go­ing be­yond this mere fact in terms of find­ing an “al­ter­na­tive” par­a­digm for Turkey’s fu­ture to sup­plant Ankara’s West­ern vo­ca­tion may prove fu­tile given the his­toric ri­valry be­tween Turks, Rus­sians and Ira­ni­ans and their so­ciopo­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences.


A newly built house sur­rounded by ru­ins in the town of Shusha, partly de­stroyed dur­ing fight­ing be­tween Karabakh and Azer­bai­jan forces in the 1990s.

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