By Hasan Selim Ozertem
The countries of the Caucasus have been critically important in Turkish foreign policy since 1991.
The basic reasons why the Caucasus has to be followed closely by Ankara include the frozen conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia and the fact that the north Caucasus is a trouble spot for Russia while the region itself is a transit point onto the Caspian Basin.
Overall, 2012 was a year in which the existing dynamics of the region did not change greatly. In the northern Caucasus, relative stability was achieved as the government of Ramzan Kadyrov worked to bring it under control but increased the number of attacks on security forces in Dagestan and Ingushetia, which is a source of anxiety for the coming year. In particular the attacks undermine Russian policies aimed at preserving the status quo in the southern Caucasus and suggest that a different approach will be required in the coming period.
Bearing in mind that five of the 10 most backward regions in the Russian Federation are located here, the need for Moscow to strengthen its regional development and integration-based policies emerges even more strongly. A close study of Moscow’s policies shows that the dispute centers on not so much the internal dynamics and problems of the regions in the country but rather its general political situation. In Russia, where Vladimir Putin has once more been elected president, the debate over the nature of the regime has quickened. However, within this process, affairs in the south Caucasus can be said to head the list of developments to which Moscow pays close attention. Turkey, which has recently been attempting to design more pipeline projects in the region, is thus also closely concerned with events in the Caucasus.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Dispute in the south Caucasus
Although Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a cease-fire agreement in 1994, no one would claim that there has yet been a final settlement in the region. The dispute has the effect of isolating Armenia from many projects, but for both sides the existing paradigm in the arms race seems to have changed this year. Azerbaijan plans to spend $1.9 billion on weapons in 2013, while Armenia has increased its defense budget for 2013 by about 15 percent above that of the previous year to $450 million.
The real problem is not increasing expenditure, but rather the $1.6 billion agreement which Azerbaijan signed with Israel during 2012. The sale of unmanned drones and air defense systems agreed on between them has created unease, not just in Yerevan, but also in Teheran. Iran has complained vehemently about its suspicions that the Israeli drones, which have begun flights in the region, could be collecting intelligence along its borders. Speaking to Foreign Policy magazine an unnamed American official comments that the rapprochement has opened a new page in the story of Iranian-Israeli tension and that he has received news that Israel has been given an air base in Azerbaijan and that these reports are also mentioned by Israeli sources. No matter how many Azerbaijani officials have subsequently denied these reports, the arms race in the region is accelerating because of the lack of a settlement in Karabakh and one can say that new dynamics have emerged as far as the parameters of regional security are concerned.
Armenia’s search for a route to Russia via Abkhazia
While Azerbaijan has been trying to change the rules of the game by involving Israel, Armenia hopes to be able to break the policies of continuing to isolate it via Abkhazia. After the Georgian presidential elections, Bidzina Ivanishvili took over the presidency from Mikheil Saakashvili, an event which returned the question of reopening the currently idle railway line between Abkhazia and Georgia to the agenda. Yerevan was also partially cut off economically from Russia after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 because the Lars border crossing ceased to operate fully. The prospect of the reopening of the Abkhazia-Georgia rail connection is thus causing some excitement in Armenia. As the line could easily transport products from heavy industries, it is being closely monitored in Armenia. Yerevan aims to speed up the logistical time for consigning goods to and from Russia by using the railway lines in Georgia. It also estimates that its costs will fall as a result.
Baku is rather uncomfortable about this prospect and has warned Tbilisi of the possibility that an unwelcome process could emerge regarding Azerbaijan’s relations with Abkhazia. For the Armenian head of state, President Serzh Sarksyan, who is expected to run for re-election in 2013, it signals a very important development. His party managed to garner more votes in the 2012 general elections than in 2007, so the possibility of opening a corridor to Russia, which might make Armenian economically more comfortable, might strengthen Sarksyan’s position further still.
Add the fact that Azerbaijan is also due to have presidential elections in October 2013, and the probability increases that nationalist rhetoric will strengthen in the Caucasus this year and that there will be a hot summer in Nagorno-Karabakh. President Haydar Aliyev is due to complete his second term in office and whether he will run as a candidate for the third time is a key question for Azerbaijan. To date there has been no very definite pronouncement on this issue from Aliyev but a major surprise is not expected.
Seen from Turkey’s standpoint, the departure of former President Saakashvili will make it more important to maintain the current state of relations with Georgia during 2013. This also being the transit route for lines coming from Azerbaijan, it is — in the words of the Caucasian Strategic Researches Centre’s director, Hasan Oktay — our third doorway to the east, after Iran and Armenia. The fact that it seem to be quite impossible to overcome the ongoing political crisis with Armenia limits Turkey’s options in this regard. At the same time, 2013 must also be a year in which work on the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) project accelerates. It is due to begin with the construction of the Azerbaijan section.
The agreement has been ratified by the Azerbaijani National Assembly and negotiations are currently under way over the foreign stakes in the project. Assuming that they become clear and the first groundbreaking takes place in 2013, TANAP is due to be completed and start operations in 2018. So, taking all these developments into account, with two important elections and a mega project coming up, the Caucasus is set to become one of the main focuses of Turkish foreign policy.
*This piece was originally published in Today’s Zaman on 2 January 2013.