Talking Turkey in the South Caucasus
It's big, it's rich and it's near, so why isn't it more here? No, not Russia, the leading lady of many a former South Caucasus drama, but what some describe as a promising actor waiting in the wings -- Turkey.
At a March 2 conference in Tbilisi on "Turkey's South Caucasus Agenda: Roles of State and Non-State Actors," sponsored by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV)*, academics, analysts, NGO-niks and retired diplomats debated the likelihood of Turkey acquiring a more active role in the region as a force for peace.
But don't expect Ankara to rush at the opportunity. As one Georgian participant noted, there are more questions than answers about what Turkey's role in the South Caucasus should be.
Right now, even while "looming large" over the region, "Turkey is indeed pushing below its weight . . . politically," commented Peter Semneby, the European Union's former special representative to the South Caucasus.
The reasons are many -- the foreign-policy distractions of the Middle East and Iran, coupled with the rise of nationalist tendencies in Turkish domestic politics (and accompanying wariness about any further outreach to Armenia), plus Ankara's desire not to irritate Russia, which still sees the South Caucasus as its own backyard.
More mundane explanations also play a role; more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, expertise in the South Caucasus still runs relatively thin among Turks, noted TESEV Assistant Foreign Policy Programme Officer Aybars Görgülü.
Overall, that means that though Ankara has given "hints" that it would like to be involved in mediating resolutions to the conflicts over the breakaway territories of Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia, said Sabine Freizer, the Istanbul-based Europe program director for the International Crisis Group, it has not yet moved to take on that role.
Turkish Ambassador to Georgia Levent Murat Burhan, meanwhile, stuck to the diplomatic middle road. While calling the South Caucasus "a priority area" in Turkey's "quest for peace and stability" in "its entire neighborhood," he underlined that Ankara has "no intention of replacing any other process" for finding a resolution to the region's conflicts.
Nor of supplanting any other international player. "Without Russia's active participation, it's very very difficult to resolve these problems," Burhan said. He went on to term the European Union, one of the most active international players in the South Caucasus, the "number one candidate" for solving problems related to the three conflicts.
"We need to have cooperation from all actors," he said. "If not, we can't move forward."
Nonetheless, some observers see a way for Turkey itself to move matters forward.
Pascal Heyman, deputy director of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Conflict Prevention Center, called on Turkey to come up with "new initiatives which complement the Geneva process [international talks related to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war -- ed]" and to find ways to engage with "the entities" (meaning Abkhazia and South Ossetia) without recognizing them.
Aside from encouraging engagement, the International Crisis Group's Freizer suggested that Turkey also pay attention to its potential cultural role in the region, and make a point of defending regional partners in international arenas such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
But lurking in the background is what TESEV's Görgülü called "a missing link" for Turkey's South Caucasus policy -- Armenia.
While Burhan stressed that the normalization of ties with Yerevan "is still on the table" for Ankara, he added that "we expect something to be reciprocated . . . but so far we didn't see much in that respect."
A lack of progress on the normalization "track" can only mean a similar lack of progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh talks between Armenia and close Turkish ally, Azerbaijan, he contended.
Though not all conference participants agreed with that argument, none expressed confidence that Turkey would ever join international mediators for the Karabakh talks -- despite Azerbaijani hopes to the contrary.
Nonetheless, Burhan asserted that "Turkey doesn't need Turkish-Armenian normalization to show that we are looking for peace, security and stability in our region."
But some conference participants maintain that peace, security and stability begin at home. Said Diba Nigar Goksel, editor-in-chief of the Turkish Policy Quarterly and Caucasus coordinator at the non-profit European Stability Initiative, "We need to work on ourselves a bit, too."
*The Open Society Foundations (OSF) provided support for this conference. EurasiaNet.org is operated under the auspices of the OSF's Central Eurasia Project. OSF also provides financial support to the International Crisis Group and TESEV, cited above.