By Saban Kardas

Eurasia Daily Monitor
Sept 2 2008

Turkey's shuttle diplomacy to manage the aftermath of the conflict
in Georgia has kept Turkish foreign policy in the spotlight. During
a series of visits to Tbilisi, Moscow, and Baku in the first half
of August, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed Ankara's
proposal for a Caucasian Stability and Cooperation Platform, which
would aspire to bring together Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia,
and Armenia. On receiving an initial green light from the regional
countries, Turkish diplomats and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan have
been holding working meetings with their counterparts.

Since Erdogan aired this proposal, the senior partners, Turkey and
Russia, have worked out the details of the project. Babacan earlier
had a phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
on August 22. A Turkish delegation visited Moscow on August 26 to
work on Turkey's proposals, but neither party disclosed the details
(Radikal, August 26). Lavrov is visiting Istanbul on September 2 to
discuss bilateral relations as well as the pact. In the meantime,
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov visited Ankara on
August 29, and Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili visited
Istanbul on August 31. The Armenian foreign minister and president
had already welcomed Turkey's proposal. After weeks of speculation
and criticism from the opposition, sources in Ankara expect Turkish
President Abdullah Gul to visit Armenia this week for a soccer game
(Radikal, September 2). President Gul and his delegation will extend an
official invitation to Armenia to join the proposed pact. The Armenian
President is visiting Russia today in anticipation of Gul visit
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The content of the pact will be shaped following these meetings, but
proposals vary from boosting economic cooperation to developing crisis
management mechanisms similar to the OSCE in Europe. The underlying
goal is to create conditions for stability and peace through regional
cooperation, which resonates well with the government's new foreign
policy agenda of projecting Turkey as an indispensable peace broker
in the region. Domestically, the initiative reflects cooperation
between Turkey's key offices.

Turkey seems determined to use this crisis as an opportunity to find
long-lasting solutions for the region's stalemated conflicts and
to boost peace. The means to this end is through deepener economic
interdependence among the countries by creating interlocking channels
in various important areas, including energy, transportation, and
infrastructure. Because the region is already beset with perennial
bilateral problems, a multilateral initiative such as this could
in theory provide a new platform to achieve a breakthrough in these
protracted problems.

The key to realizing the project is for the regional countries to set
aside their differences. Russia continues its occupation of Georgia,
while Armenia's occupation of Karabakh poisons its relations with
Azerbaijan and Turkey. In the meantime, a Turkish-Russian trade
dispute has been accelerating into a serious crisis. The visits of
the Azerbaijani and Georgian foreign ministers already demonstrated
that their support for the project is heavily conditional on obtaining
clear guarantees on issues vital to them, and they remain reluctant
at best. Most importantly, Tkeshelashvili's visit particularly
underlined the lack of trust between the would-be partners. While
Turkey's proposal assumes that the Caucasian countries could develop a
local security regime, it stresses that a broader initiative including
European powers is also needed. Short of such a solution, Turkey is
worried that this initiative could justify Russia's near abroad policy
(NTV, September 1).

This creates a difficult predicament: As long as the major regional
power is seen as the aggressor, the smaller countries will seek
powerful external arbiters. Ironically, Russia's attempt to curb
outside involvement in its near abroad lies at the heart of the
crisis. Since Turkey will not be able on its own to give assurances
to Georgia, the viability of the project is in question. Turkish
analysts have also questioned whether an initiative excluding Iran
could survive as well (Ihsan Dagi in Today's Zaman, August 25).

Let alone assuring smaller countries in a closed regional arrangement,
Turkey's ability to withstand the pressures from a resurgent Russia
is dubious. So far, Turkey has followed an ambivalent policy and
has avoided taking sides. Turkey did not forcefully protest Russia's
recognition of Georgia's breakaway regions, due to its dependence on
Russia for energy supplies and trade, which worried Westerners that
Ankara might abandon the West. Erdogan acknowledged this dependence,
which made a balanced policy between the United States and Russia
necessary, and drew attention to Turkey's attempts to diversify its
energy supplies (Milliyet, September 2).

Turkey's acquiescent attitude toward Russia, however, received
criticism at home. The insensitivity of Russia to Turkey's concerns in
the trade dispute especially led Turkish analysts to argue that Turkey
might slowly realize the dangers involved and reassert its place
in the Western camp. Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug's recent remarks
about the importance of the Turkish-U.S. alliance are seen as the
strongest indicator of such realignment on Turkey's part (Milliyet,
August 31). Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's announcement of new
pillars of Russian foreign policy only increases these worries. Veteran
analyst Sami Kohen sees it as Russia's challenge to the uni-polar world
order and attempt to translate Russian economic power into political
influence. In particular, he expects Russia to capitalize on its
monopoly of energy resources and bully the West European countries so
that it can divide them and legitimize its fait accompli (Milliyet,
September 2).

Even if these broader goals fail, Turkey, on its part, sees the
Caucasus initiative as a way of solving bilateral problems with
Armenia. In return for being acknowledged by Moscow as a mediator
in the Russia-Georgia dispute, Ankara expects Russia in turn to
use its influence over Armenia (Today's Zaman, August 30). The
resolution of the conundrum, however, comes down to whether Armenia
will reciprocate. With the current status quo favoring Armenia,
it remains to be seen how far it will back down in its lingering
dispute with Azerbaijan and Turkey.