Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beware the Grand Bargain.

The protocols published by the Armenian, Turkish and Swiss foreign ministries on 31 August have provoked an outcry among both Armenian and Turkish nationalists. Both societies were caught entirely unawares – in fact, in the weeks running up the announcement, commentators on all sides were describing the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process as all but moribund. After the initial shock, some of the criticisms levelled against the protocols were well-founded and –argued; others departed from trains of thought that bordered on the ludicrous and absurd. Among Devlet Bahceli and the sympathisers of the ultra-nationalist MHP, as well as elements of the more mainstream CHP, the narrative was one of ‘betrayal’ to the Turks’ ‘blood-brothers’, the Azeris. Among Armenian nationalists, in Armenia but especially in the Diaspora, accusations flew regarding a supposed betrayal of ‘Armenian historical rights’. On both extremes, the reactions were completely predictable in terms of their enduring, fossilised paranoia.

As things stand, it is clear that both the Turkish and Armenian governments took a substantial risk in trying to push the reconciliation agenda. Both the ethnic Azeri community in Turkey and the Azeri government have grown adept in recent years in exploiting the nationalist reflexes that still exist within Turkish society. And, in agreeing to the recognition of the current Turkish-Armenian border, and the setting up of a sub-commission dealing with the 1915 Genocide, Yerevan must have known it would be taking a calculated risk by endangering its relations with the Diaspora (or substantial parts thereof): while society in Armenia proper has shown an at best mixed reaction to the documents, the Diaspora – still dominated politically by the Dashnaks – has displayed an overwhelmingly negative attitude.

On their own, these risks seem daunting. Turkey’s policy towards the former Soviet Union has, in no small part, been based on its positioning as a crucial energy hub towards the Caucasus and Central Asia – something dependent in no small part on its “One Nation, Two States” alliance with Azerbaijan. And, since at least 1998, Armenia’s state ideology has propounded the idea of ‘One Nation, One Culture’ – defining the Republic of Armenia as the representative of all Armenians, including the Diaspora, on the international stage. The thus mobilised lobbying power of that Diaspora was part and parcel of Armenia’s foreign policy in previous years – and losing at least part of it would, no doubt, leave Armenia substantially weaker.

Focusing on the immediate risks taken by both actors, however, provides us with only part of the picture: these pitfalls are substantial, but so are the potential benefits. On other levels, and in other issue-areas, both Turkey and Armenia believe they stand to gain significantly in the case of a successful rapprochement. The Turkish government’s stance forms part of its broader ‘zero-problems’ domestic and foreign policies, which received added urgency following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Its policies towards the Caucasus and Central Asia are clearly threatened by potential instabilities, which would threaten energy routes and endanger its now excellent relations with Russia through the complex network of allegiances and alignments in the troublesome region. Armenia, on the other hand, is growing increasingly concerned at the sight of increasingly disadvantageous economic growth differentials; of the three states, Armenia’s economy has been hit the hardest by the global economic crisis. Yerevan’s more determined push for better relations with Turkey is, to a significant extent, predicated on an understanding that, left isolated, Armenia’s economy will likely continue to underperform its neighbours’ (as it has in recent years, particularly in relation to Azerbaijan), with significant strategic implications in the long term.

Turkey craves for stability in its immediate neighbourhood – apart from wanting to do away with one of the arguments that might stand in the way of its eventual EU membership, as well as seeking to avert a complication of its relationship with the United States through a possible recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Congress. Armenia, similarly, wants to reintegrate its isolated economy into the regional and global networks that provide for growth and prosperity – even if that doesn’t necessarily mean a reconsideration of its strategic relationship with Russia. What’s more, with Russian-Turkish relations ‘better than they have ever been’ (according to Vladimir Putin), a possible normalisation of Armenian relations with Turkey would not necessarily elicit the same kind of concern in Moscow as it might have had five years ago. Contrary to what some commentators have recently stated, an opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia would most probably not imply Armenia’s gravitation towards the West. Russia would be able to live with Turkish-Armenian reconciliation because of its strategically dominant position within the Armenian economy, and, besides, as anyone studying East Asian politics would know, political-military realignments do not necessary follow from the creation of economic linkages.

Moreover, unlike elsewhere, the Great Powers – the United States, Russia and, if one considers it a member of that exclusive club, the EU – now seem to be aligned on the dual issues of Turkish-Armenian and Azeri-Armenian relations. Contrary to expectations, the Minsk Group did not implode following the Russo-Georgian war of 2008; quite on the contrary, the United States and Russia seem to have made co-operation within that group part and parcel of the ‘reset’ in relations touted by Hilary Clinton earlier this year. If – and that is a big ‘if’ - that ‘reset’ does succeed and the Great Powers achieve a more deeply and broadly grounded form of strategic cooperation, this may end up seriously constraining the bargaining power of smaller regional players. It would be very difficult for either Armenia, or Azerbaijan, or (to a far lesser extent) Turkey to resist any imposed or ‘suggested’ solution based on a consensus between the ‘Great Powers’ – a consensus that, while still difficult to achieve, would encompass highly important issues like NATO expansion, missile defence, Iran, and energy routes out of Central Asia. With Karabakh and Armenia-Turkey interwoven with many of these issues, anyone seen as threatening such a hard-won grand bargain would soon find his options exhausted.

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