Sometimes Peace Needs Quiet: Time for Calm in the Caspian Region
(L-R) Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a session of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, October 10, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin
Some hopeful and heartening developments are taking place between key actors and allies in the wake of the Azerbaijan-Armenian confrontation last year. And alarmists on all sides are worried about it.
First, the exchanges of people for land mine maps. With some nudging from Russia, Armenia provided maps of the Fizuli and Zangilan regions in exchange for another fifteen of its citizens whose detention for border violations has expired. Still, more mines exist, and it will take at least another decade to finish ridding all the land of this curse. The opportunity to get over 90,000 mines out of the ground using the new maps is a good step forward.
So is the proposal by Azerbaijan (made during an online meeting of the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation) to begin bilateral talks on the actual limits and marking of the long-disputed border. The Azerbaijan foreign minister made this conditional on Armenian factions dropping their calls for revenge, which is easily said but not so easily done. Yet the successful re-election of a relatively moderate Armenian government offers hope that its language will be less heated than had harder-line opponents come to power. Pashinyan needs a steady supply of small successes in the diplomatic and domestic field to survive politically, and that will be very important to continuing peace in the region.
Pashinyan needs a steady supply of small successes in the diplomatic and domestic field to survive politically, and that will be very important to continuing peace in the region.
Azerbaijan must be patient, occupying the high moral ground. Armenia, badly rattled by last year’s war, one hopes will choose pragmatism and quiet bilateral progress. Managing Pashinyan’s own hawkish critics may help explain why Armenia has vetoed opening the Zangezur (also known as the ‘Nakhchivan’) route between Baku and Nakhchivan (facilitating connections to eastern Turkey). Slow going ahead on this subject, it appears. But Azerbaijan is not waiting. It has already signalled its reconstruction of the eastern section of this route (Horadiz to Aghbend).
There are other geopolitical complications. Russians now (as peacekeepers) are present on the ground in areas of Karabakh. Have both Armenia and Azerbaijan, ironically, been drawn back towards Russia? Or, as some have said, has Turkey now ‘penetrated’ the old Russian sphere of influence by its support of Azerbaijan? Russia has enough distractions on the Eastern and Western European borders, so good relations between Russia and Turkey, as “best of enemies,” appears to be a calming trend. Both have large mega-projects (the Istanbul Canal, pipelines, and the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Station in Southern Anatolia). There are no Turkish forces in Azerbaijan. Russian observers (or some in the West) may be saying (quietly), “for now.”
Has Azerbaijan thus balanced Russian gravitation? Turkey has placed itself between Baku and Russia, as Turkey’s president, Erdogan, stated when he toured Karabakh. During his visit, he proposed a six-power platform where Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Iran work together to spur recovery. Erdogan reassured Armenians that Azerbaijan would be on its best behaviour if Armenia “shows goodwill.” The proposal was announced in Shusha, a city of ancient heritage in the heart of Karabakh.
Erdogan reassured Armenians that Azerbaijan would be on its best behaviour if Armenia “shows goodwill.”
Erdogan is the first Turkish leader to visit there, and the Shusha Declaration, as it is known, announced Turkey’s desire to extend its influence across the entire region through joint military production, economic assistance, and cultural enterprise. Armenians of long memory and deep ambition will have difficulty swallowing this. Erdogan also declared that a Turkish Consulate would be set up in Shusha, facilitating investment and declaring a strong and presumably lasting presence.
Shusha was a Turkish-Azerbaijani triumph, and as expected, all political parties in Azerbaijan declared their support. Other Turkic groups did as well, a development which Jamestown Foundation analyst Aslan Doukaev warns may alarm Russia, concerned with whether this could stir up passions in its largest ethnic minority group, the Tatars of the Volga. They share with Turkey both ethnic and religious bonds (as Sunni Hanafi Muslims). However, the Tatars have not shown signs of unrest in the wake of Russia’s Crimean occupation, nor over its domination of Chechnya.
But the United States must, in the light of President Biden’s current stance on Russia and Vladimir Putin, follow a quiet, calm, and consistent path, balancing its support for Armenia (Armenians have a vociferous lobby in the United States) with attempts to open constructive lines of diplomacy with Turkey.
Turkish diplomacy remains a delicate matter for the West, especially for the United States. Though a member of NATO, Turkey seems to be inching towards withdrawal from that alliance and is currently in a situation closer to one of non-alignment. The Biden government quietly supported the detainee-for-mine-maps swaps. The US-based Caspian Policy Centre’s CEO, visiting Karabakh in May, openly deplored the “violence against humanity” seen in the ruins of countless depopulated villages, approving the liberation of the occupied lands. The United States Ambassador to Azerbaijan has praised Turkey’s contribution to peacekeeping, especially in Afghanistan. But the United States must, in the light of President Biden’s current stance on Russia and Vladimir Putin, follow a quiet, calm, and consistent path, balancing its support for Armenia (Armenians have a vociferous lobby in the United States) with attempts to open constructive lines of diplomacy with Turkey. That will take particular dexterity following Biden‘s declaration on the Armenian genocide, following which Turkish outrage will need calming.
Azerbaijan has been America’s de facto ally for two decades, yet the US keeps the discriminatory Section 907 on its books. That creates a sense of unfairness in Baku and Ankara while Armenia gets annoyed by its annual waiving by Washington: a lose-lose situation. So, Congress should legislate Section 907 out of existence. It should also be less prone to harping on about liberal democratic principles, a message which is not always welcome in much of the region and at its worst can sound hypocritical. Meanwhile, NATO should avoid any appearance of courting the Caspian basin nations. It is a time for quiet diplomacy, the creation of cooperative connections and for ignoring anyone waving a bloody shirt. It is not a time for preaching. This could seem a somewhat unfamiliar approach for many Canadians and for the West in general, but it might prove the wisest approach over the next few years.