BACKGROUND: Even though Turkish policy towards the Caucasus has appeared in recent years like a sinus curve, with many ups and downs, Turkey cannot ignore the region simply because of its close proximity. While Azerbaijan is a kindred country, its mainland has no borders with Turkey. Hence for Turkey’s access to the Caucasus and Central Asia, given Ankara’s problematic relations with Armenia, the key country is Georgia.
Turkey’s role is all the more important given Iran’s positions, and its conflict with the west. Particularly for trade and transportation, Turkey has come to play a crucial role. Aside from the transportation of oil and gas from the Caspian sea to European markets, trade in commodities has picked up seriously as well. Indeed, the war broke out only days after the opening ceremony for the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, attended by the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.
Turkey perceives both the South and North Caucasus as a buffer zone, mostly because of the strong impression left from the centuries of warfare with the Russian Empire. Issues in the Caucasus affect Turkey through Diaspora populations as well.
While the region was only ruled from Istanbul for relatively short periods and very long ago, Diasporas representing virtually all the Caucasian nations are present in Turkey, relatively well organized, and forces to be reckoned with. The solidarity groups of Muslim Georgians and their activities on the Turkish political arena are a known phenomenon. But the Abkhaz are a factor too: the Abkhaz Diaspora in Turkey counts many more souls than the present-day Abkhaz population. The same can be said for Ossetians. Hence Turkey is representative of the Caucasus, seeing a competition among ethnic elites from the region. As a natural consequence of this characteristic, even putting aside the security and Russian factors, it is almost impossible for Turkish governments to have a clear stance supporting either Georgia, Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Thus interviews with the foundations and pressure groups established by these Diasporas display a clear picture: nobody is content with Turkey’s policies.
Up until now, however, Turkey has seen Georgia as a strategic partner, and has supported the territorial integrity of Georgia. Turkey has played an important role in strengthening the orientation of Georgia toward the West. In increasing the standards of the Georgian army, supporting the construction of ports, airports and other infrastructural investments, Turkish firms have been a leading force in Georgia. Clearly, such infrastructure carries strategic importance for Turkey: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum oil and gas pipelines, respectively, have made Georgia a key factor in achieving the Turkish goal of becoming an energy hub and connecting the energy fields of Caspian basin to the world markets.
However, it is also clear that the current Turkish government has displayed a much lower degree of interest toward the Caucasus compared to previous governments. Indeed, the Milli Görustradition from which the AKP government hails emphasizes Muslim solidarity rather than linguistic and cultural ties with the Turkic world; hence the AKP has been much more interested in the Middle East than in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Yet the crisis prodded Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to launch an initiative for a Caucasus alliance, later renamed a “stability and cooperation platform”.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey’s reaction to the war showed the quandary it is in, but also the conflicting pressures and instincts guiding its decision-making. One the one hand, Ankara paid lip service to its western alignment and the joint projects it has been pursuing with the West for years; but on the other, it launched an initiative that explicitly kept the West out.
Following the crisis, the Turkish government allowed U.S. warships, most significantly the flagship of the U.S. Mediterranean Navy, the USS Mount Whitney, to cross the Turkish straits into the Black Sea. This took place even though the ships were at the limit of the tonnage allowed under the Montreux Convention. This showed that Turkey is sensitive to western policies, despite Russian criticism. Likewise, Turkey was among the first to provide assistance and logistics for Georgia, in spite of some of its aid being stopped by Russia’s war.
Indeed, such actions are directly in line with Turkey’s long-term interests in the region, as defined for the past decade. Turkey’s main accomplishment in the region has been the realization of the South Caucasus energy corridor, which makes it an emerging energy and transportation hub for Europe. Russian actions in Georgia, widely interpreted to threaten the future of this energy and transportation corridor, therefore were a major blow to Turkish interests. This strategic picture would logically provide an impetus for a strengthening of the existing Turkish-American coordination on South Caucasus affairs, which was launched in the late 1990s but has been increasingly moribund since the 2003 Iraq war led to a worsening of relation between Washington and Ankara.
This makes the stability project launched by Erdogan appear all the more puzzling. Most obviously, the prospect of achieving consensus around a multilateral mechanism in the middle of a raging war between Russia and Georgia appeared to be guided either be wishful thinking or a serious underestimation of the gravity of the events. Indeed, Georgia’s official reaction suggested no less, agreeing to consider the initiative only once its territory had been liberated from Russian occupation.
The format and proposed membership of the proposed initiative raises questions as well. It includes the three Caucasian states, Turkey, and Russia. Neither the West nor Iran are included. The logic behind this particular membership structure has never been fully explained. The exclusion of the U.S. and the West in general could be explained by the regional character of the initiative; but that logic would imply the inclusion of Iran.
In effect, although a Turkish initiative, this mechanism would create a structure dominated by Russia, with Turkey playing a secondary role. Given Russia’s overt claims to a sphere of interest of its own in the South Caucasus, it is difficult to see what role Moscow sees for Turkey in the region, other than a secondary power legitimizing its dominance. Such a structure would therefore clearly not be in the interest of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Moreover, creating a structure that, by excluding the west, legitimizes Russian primacy in the region does not seem to be congruent with Turkey’s own long-term interests. Hence the initiative does not appear to be guided by calm, rational analysis.
Of course, this is a clear result of the fact that Russia’s place in Turkish foreign policy gains more and more importance as time goes by. In terms of trade volume, Russia is a key partner for Turkey. It generates half of its electricity from natural gas turbines, and buys over two thirds of its natural gas from Russia. The Anti-American atmosphere in Turkey also makes Russia appealing in the eyes of sections of the Turkish leadership.
CONCLUSIONS: The latest war clearly led Russia to reinforce the reality it had created in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, separating these territories from Georgia. Through this war, Russia showed that it will not remain silent in the face of the involvement of NATO or other Western institutions in the region. This affects not only Georgia, but the entire Black Sea region, specifically Ukraine. Indeed, the place of Black Sea region and the South Caucasus in the emerging post-post cold war order is uncertain. It is likely, however, that the region will increasingly be a stage for the power struggle between Russia and the West. In such a divide, Turkey’s objective interests would be best defended by standing with the Western alliance, something the war in Georgia makes abundantly clear. If the current and possible future crises focus the attention of the West more toward this region, Turkey will be forced to take a more active stance. Provided that its policies are congruent with the West’s, that could boost Turkey’s own EU ambitions.