By Michael Reynolds

Sept 1 2008

There are abundant reasons for one to expect that Turkey would have
been following events in Georgia and the Caucasus with great diligence.

The outbreak of the Russian-Georgian War earlier this month apparently
caught Ankara as poorly prepared as it caught Washington. The Turkish
Foreign Ministry's section dealing with the Caucasus reportedly was
virtually unstaffed. The head of the section was in Mosul on temporary
assignment, the section's number-two spot is empty and has been for the
last six months. The number three was also away on temporary assignment
in Nakhichevan and the other assigned section members were on vacation,
thus forcing on-duty diplomats from other desks to scramble.

This may surprise. There are abundant reasons for one to expect that
Turkey would have been following events in Georgia and the Caucasus
with great diligence. The two countries share common borders and
intertwined histories. Istanbul ruled large chunks of the Caucasus,
including much of Georgia, for centuries, and today there remains
inside Turkey a small but vibrant community of Abkhazians and related
Caucasian peoples. Russia for most of the past three centuries has
loomed over Turkey as its greatest rival and threat, yet at critical
times, such as during the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22), it
has been a key ally. Today Russia supplies somewhere around 70 percent
of Turkey's natural gas and is Turkey's second largest trading partner.

Georgia is a transit point for Caspian and Central Asian oil and
gas and as such is critical to Turkey's ambitions to become an
energy hub and to diversify its own energy supplies. As a member
of NATO, Turkey has been involved in training and supplying the
Georgian military. Finally, given Turkey's own struggle with Kurdish
separatists, other instances of ethno-separatism and border revision
logically should command Ankara's keen attention. In short, both
Russia and Georgia are of great strategic, economic, and historic
importance to Turkey, and the principles of territorial integrity and
self-determination over which the Russo-Georgian War was (nominally)
fought are directly relevant to the most sensitive of Turkey's
security concerns.

Turkey's lack of preparedness for the Russo-Georgian war is not
coincidental, but instead reflects a long-standing legacy of
Kemalism. The fundamental precept of the foreign policy course
laid out by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, summed up in his famous phrase,
"Peace at home, peace in the world," was that Turkey should bury its
imperial past, avoid foreign entanglements, and focus on internal
development. Thus the Turkish Republic deliberately isolated itself
from its neighbors, especially those to its south and east. It cut
cultural and other ties across the board, and preferred cordial
but distant relations over close involvement and interaction. As a
result, Turkey today has a strong cadre of diplomats, professors,
analysts and others fluent in English and familiar with the United
States and Western Europe, but it lacks the sort of expertise about
its own neighborhood that one might assume it would naturally possess
given its imperial history. Although challenges to this policy of
isolation have emerged on occasion (briefly in the 1950s and perhaps
during the early 1990s), a preference for cool detachment and inward
focus has remained dominant in the Turkish bureaucracy.

There is much to be said for avoiding foreign entanglements, and
the reasoning behind "Peace at home, peace abroad" was anything but
frivolous. Yet self-imposed isolation carries its own costs. Those
costs rose precipitately for Turkey following the end of the Cold
War as its neighborhood underwent tremendous political and economic
transformation. Ignoring the events taking place around it was no
solution. At this time, Turkey's self-confidence began to grow, and
more Turks began to advocate that their country play a more active
role in its region. One positive development has been the emergence in
Turkey of think-tanks, both official and non-governmental, dedicated
to foreign and domestic issues.

Old habits and institutional practices die hard, however, and playing
an active role in such a complex region is no simple matter. As a
way to break out of the old mindset and gain experience in regional
affairs without great risk, Turkey has been trying to play the role of
mediator in regional conflicts. The architect of this approach is Ahmet
Davutoglu, a former professor and close adviser to Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan who now holds the rank of ambassador. Thus Turkey has
involved itself in negotiations between Syria and Israel. Similarly,
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has at times tried to position
himself as a broker between the West and Iran.

Erdogan in the midst of the Russo-Georgian War tried to apply a
slightly more advanced variant of this formula by flying to Moscow,
Tiblisi, and Baku and proposing a "Caucasus Stability and Cooperation
Platform." The idea of the platform, which is sometimes also called
a pact, is to bring together the three South Caucasian states of
Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan with Turkey and Russia, and enable
them to mediate and solve their conflicts among themselves.

The idea sounds attractive, but it will not go far. Such pacts
can work only if all members are willing to prioritize stability
and good relations over their other interests. Yet if there is one
thing we know, it is that there is no consensus for stability in the
Caucasus. Russia just mounted a calculated and successful effort to
overthrow the status quo in the Caucasus at the expense of another
putative pact member, Georgia. Russia's war aims, moreover, extend
beyond altering the balance of power in the Caucasus to restoring
its position as the dominant power in Eurasia and restructuring its
relations with the United States and Europe. Abkhazia and South Ossetia
are pawns in a game bigger than the Caucasus. The notion that what
Russia and Georgia need in order to come to a mutually satisfactory
agreement is a nearby neutral venue for their diplomats to meet
verges on the surreal. Perhaps for this reason, the Russian press
chose to give short shrift to Erdogan's call for a stability pact,
and instead interpret his visit as signifying support for Russia in
South Ossetia. It was not the finest moment in Turkish diplomacy.

Azerbaijan is another state in the Caucasus that has for some time
been voicing an intense dissatisfaction with the status quo. In recent
months, Baku has been dropping subtle threats that it might seek to
revise it by going to war. In particular, Azerbaijan is dissatisfied
with the outcome of the war it fought with Armenian forces over
Nagorno-Karabakh (to use the most widespread English rendering of
the region's name), a predominantly Armenian enclave (technically it
held the title of "autonomous oblast" in the Soviet Union) inside the
Republic of Azerbaijan. The Karabakh War started in 1988, i.e. when
the Soviet Union was still in existence, and ended with a ceasefire
some six years later in 1994. During the war not only did Karabakh
break free of Baku's control, but Armenian forces managed to seize
roughly fifteen percent of the Republic of Azerbaijan's territory
and expelled the Azeri inhabitants thereof, some 800,000 people.

Since that time, Baku has not been able to achieve any redress through
diplomatic measures. But thanks to foreign investment in its oil
industry it has accumulated some wealth, and has used that wealth to
engage in a military build-up. Whether or not Azerbaijan's military is
capable of defeating and driving out Armenian forces and restoring the
occupied territories and Karabakh to Baku is by no means clear, but
building frustration among Azeris might tempt them to test their luck.

Turkey and Armenia are the two states in the Caucasus that have the
greatest interest in preserving and building upon the status quo. The
Armenians, i.e. the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and
the Republic of Armenia, won the Karabakh War and wish to keep their
gains. They would like Azerbaijan and the wider world to acknowledge
the de facto independent NKR as sovereign Armenian territory (either
as part of the Armenian Republic proper or as a separate republic).

Armenia in addition would like to see Turkey lift the blockade it
imposed in 1993 in response to the Armenians' seizure of Azerbaijani
territory. That blockade has stunted land-locked Armenia's economic
development, leaving it dependent upon Georgia and Iran for surface
routes to the outside world. The disruption Russia's invasion
has caused to the operations of Georgia's ports, rail lines, and
roads (ironically, Turkish goods are among the biggest commodities
imported along those roads into Armenia) has hit Armenia's economy
especially hard. and underscored Armenia's isolation and fundamental
vulnerability. Indeed, even before this most recent war, it was clear
that Armenia's lack of relations with Turkey had left it excessively
dependent upon Russia--an unhealthy situation for any state pretending
to sovereign status. (Indeed, with Armenia already virtually in its
back pocket, one might imagine that Russia may seek to woo Azerbaijan
to its side by compelling Armenian concessions on Karabakh.)

For its part, Turkey since the end of the Cold War has benefited in
numerous ways from the retreat of Russian power and had reason to be
generally satisfied with the state of affairs in the Caucasus prior
to this war. The big exception is the state of its relations with
Armenia. Although Turkey was one of the very first states to recognize
Armenia's independence in 1991, it never followed up to establish
relations. Several difficult issues divide the two states. One bone
of contention between them is Turkey's insistence that Armenia
definitively renounce any claims on the territory of the Turkish
Republic. Another is Armenia's insistence that Turkey recognize the
massacres and deportations from Anatolia of Ottoman Armenians during
and after World War One as a genocide. A third is Turkey's demand that
Armenia withdraw from the territory of Azerbaijan that it occupies.

A fourth issue is, of course, the blockade. Although the imposition
of the blockade was greatly appreciated by Azerbaijan, which sees
itself as the victim of Armenian aggression, it has harmed Turkey's
image worldwide by reinforcing the stereotype of the "Terrible Turk"
as a bully. This is something the Turks, never mind the Azeris,
find particularly irksome given that it is the Armenians now who are
occupying territory seized in war. Turkish support for Azerbaijan has
impaired Turkish efforts to counter the lobbying by Armenian diaspora
groups of legislative bodies worldwide to classify the mass deaths of
Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Opening the border with Armenia,
some Turkish officials believe, would enable Turkey to thwart these
efforts more effectively.

Economics provides another incentive for Turkey to open its
borders. Turkey's east is isolated, distant from markets, and remains
underdeveloped. Opening the border with Armenia would provide a boost
to the local economy by enabling cross-border trade. It would also
make available better routing options for oil and gas pipelines
from the Caspian and export corridors to the Caspian and beyond,
and thereby provide a boon to Turkey's national economy as well.

In a gesture intended perhaps to break the stalemate in
Turkish-Armenian relations, the Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
invited his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to come to Yerevan on
September 6 to watch the national soccer teams of the two nations
play a World Cup qualifying match. Gul, some Turks hope, will seize
the moment to initiate a major shift in the region's diplomacy. Gul
has not yet committed. Were Gul to do so, it would mark a significant
change not just in Turkish-Armenian relations, but even more so in
Turkish diplomacy, which has a tradition of working slowly and with
exceeding caution, and of letting opportunities slip by.

Indeed, with Russian forces now inside Georgia, both Turkey and Armenia
(as well as Azerbaijan) probably already have missed an opportunity to
overcome their differences and to chart a path toward more secure and
prosperous futures for their societies. The Russian state, whether
in its Tsarist, Soviet, and contemporary forms has demonstrated
substantial skill in manipulating ethnic and other cleavages on
its borderlands to weaken its competitors. It is worth remembering
that Russia was involved in the emergence of all of the conflicts
mentioned above (Turkish-Armenian, Azeri-Armenian, Ossetian-Georgian,
and Abkhazian-Georgian) among others. That is not to say that Russia
invented these conflicts. Hardly. At times Russia has expended
considerable efforts to contain and resolve them. But Russia is not
an outsider to them and possesses an intimate familiarity with them--a
familiarity that it can, has, and will deploy to its advantage.

Strength is a relative thing. Sapping the cohesion and power of
one's potential rivals is often as effective, and occasionally even
more useful, a method for overcoming them than is building up one's
own strength. There are more fissures for Russia to exploit in the
Caucasus. The Turkish-Armenian-Azerbaijani fissure is an easy one to
exploit. For reasons of history, memory, and culture, all of these
societies remain deeply conflicted regarding relations with each
other. Finding and pushing the buttons to poison the atmosphere and
disrupt any move toward reconciliation is not difficult.

Russia exerts tremendous influence over Armenia, and considerable
influence over Azerbaijan. Turkey, too, is vulnerable to Russian
pressure. Already Turkish businessmen are fretting over the way
increased scrutiny by Russian customs of their goods is harming
Turkish exports and are wondering if such scrutiny is intended as a
message to Turkey to refrain from close cooperation with the United
States against Russia.

Keeping Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan at loggerheads serves Russia
by neutralizing the power and options of its Caucasian neighbors,
keeping them dependent, and blocking the development of the Caucasus as
an alternative corridor for energy and trade. It also serves varied
domestic interests in each of those states. But it does nothing
for those societies aside from depriving them of options for future

It is not clear that Russia's defeat of Georgia will restore it to
the position of hegemon in the Caucasus, but it will increase Moscow's
ability to play the role of regional spoiler. Although many Turks and
Armenians retain doubts about the propriety of closer relations between
their countries, important constituencies inside the governments and
societies of the two nations recognize the multiple benefits better
ties would bring. Their difficulty is convincing others that improved
relations are, in fact, conceivable. Thus were Gul and Sarkisian to
meet this September and announce together that they intend that their
states should, together with Azerbaijan, overcome their differences,
their words would have a real impact.

As the larger, more senior, more established, and more powerful state,
Turkey is the better candidate to take the lead in the drive toward
reconciliation. But it is not likely to happen. With Russia inside
Georgia, and the Caucasus reverting again to a theater of Great Power
confrontation, time is running out. Boldness is required. Yet whereas
Moscow drew from its imperial collapse the lesson that fortune favors
the bold, Ankara took from the Ottoman experience the lesson that
extreme discretion is the better part of valor.