Turkey and Armenia
From The Economist print edition
Recent moves towards a peace deal may come unstuck
A HIGH-STAKES chess game is being played out in the south Caucasus. It involves America, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey. Unlike chess-players, though, all the participants can win in this game, it is hoped, if they agree on a common aim: peace between Turkey and Armenia, which would help to thaw the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the (mainly Armenian) territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
It almost seemed possible on April 23rd, when Turkey and Armenia declared that they had agreed on a “road map” to establish formal ties and reopen the border. This was sealed by Turkey in 1993 to show solidarity with Azerbaijan, which had just lost 20% of its territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh. If the border were open, Armenians could then climb their sacred Mount Ararat. Friendship with Armenia might give Turkey the muscle to push through a deal on Karabakh, as well as securing it a bigger role in the south Caucasus. And that would give Turkey’s friends a fresh reason to promote Turkish membership of the European Union.
The most immediate benefit, though, was meant to be dissuading Barack Obama from keeping his campaign promise to call the mass slaughter of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 “genocide”. In the statement he issued on April 24th, the day when the world’s Armenians commemorate the tragedy, the American president tried to please everybody. He plumped for “medz yeghern”, Armenian for “great catastrophe”. (Cynics noted that the Turkish- Armenian deal, though initialled a month ago, had been announced only a day earlier.) And he praised Turkey’s and Armenia’s peacemaking efforts. Hardliners in Armenia and the diaspora were furious, accusing Mr Obama of reneging on his promise. Yet in Turkey the opposition complained that he had simply swapped Armenian for English to say the same thing.
A bigger obstacle to a deal may be Azerbaijan. It is threatening to turn towards Russia and to increase the price of the natural gas it sells to Turkey. This may explain why the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has reverted to the traditional line that, unless Armenia makes peace with Azerbaijan, Turkey will not make peace with Armenia—even though the text they initialled reportedly does not mention Nagorno-Karabakh at all.
Some say he is posturing, to force Armenia to withdraw from some of the seven regions of Azerbaijan that it occupies outside Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliev, and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, are due to meet in Prague next week, before an EU eastern-partnership summit. But Mr Sargsyan, whose image was marred by a disputed presidential election in April 2008, is unlikely to bend further. One admittedly puny coalition partner has already walked out over the deal with Turkey. The financial crisis is starting to bite, too. Armenian migrant labourers are returning from Russia in droves. Oil and gas prices have shot up. The Armenian dram has lost over a third of its value against the dollar.
The real spoiler may turn out to be Russia. Armenia is the only country bordering Turkey, a NATO member, in which the Russians have troops and a base. Peace with Turkey could lead to their withdrawal, as Armenia leans westward. The trade-off, say some, could be for Russian peacekeepers to defend the corridor linking Armenia proper to Nagorno-Karabakh. But Russia is also said to be bullying Azerbaijan for more gas. If it gets it, that may kill the planned Nabucco pipeline to carry Central Asian and Azerbaijani gas to Europe via Turkey, leaving Europe more dependent on Russia for its energy.