The European Union's decision to pursue membership talks with Turkey could have far-reaching political and economic ramifications for the Caucasus. The accession process can stimulate democratization in the region, experts say.
The EU decided December 17 to open what promises to be a lengthy accession process with Turkey. Some political observers in Turkey say the decision immediately increased pressure on Ankara to normalize relations with neighboring Armenia. In recent months, Ankara and Yerevan have probed a rapprochement, but they have yet to make substantive progress in overcoming long-standing mutual hostility. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"If Turkey starts accession talks," adds Professor Gareth Winrow of Istanbul's Bilgi University, "it will have to normalize relations with all its neighbors as a condition of future EU membership. Number one, this means opening all its borders."
Turkish observers say the government will have a difficult time finessing the border issue, adding that despite the EU pressure, the status quo may not change in the near future. "If Turkey just opened the border because of EU pressure, there might easily be a backlash," warned Mustafa Sahin of the Ankara-based Eurasian think tank, AVSAM. "Azerbaijan is a very popular cause in Turkey. Also, Armenia still has territorial claims on Turkey that would have to be solved."
Turkish territorial concerns stem from Armenia's refusal to recognize the Kars Treaty of 1921, which set the frontiers between the two states. Armenia claims there is no need for such recognition, as acceptance of the existing borders was implicit when both countries joined the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Turkey, however, continues to seek a specific guarantee of Armenian recognition for the existing border.
Armenian President Robert Kocharian in late 2004 appealed to the EU to place the opening of the frontier among the pre-conditions for Turkey's EU membership. "It is unacceptable for a country that is to have membership talks with the EU to keep its border closed with another country that is already in the neighborhood policy of Europe," Kocharian said.
The Armenian leader was referring to the EU Neighborhood Policy (EUNP), which was formulated to provide a framework for states bordering on the EU, such as Moldova and Ukraine. "The EUNP is designed to give support and dialogue to those countries that have no prospect of joining for now," adds Winrow. "At first, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were excluded from the EUNP, but after the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the EU changed its mind and allowed them in." [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
If Turkey and Armenia can eventually settle their differences, some observers believe pressure could increase on the Baku and Yerevan to reach a Karabakh settlement. Others, however, are guarded about the possibilities. "Accession talks won't have any direct effect on the Armenian issue," suggested Ferai Tinc, a political analyst for the Hurriyet daily. "We've seen many times before these moves to sort out the border."
Nevertheless, Tinc and others say Turkey's move towards EU membership cannot but have a positive impact on the Caucasus. "It will send a message to the region that will be good for the democratization process," says Tinc. "Turkey's relations with the Caucasian states will be within a different framework not as a big brother, but as a member of a community."
Sahin, the AVSAM think-tank expert, said that even though Armenia views Turkey with suspicion, a significant number of Armenians want to see Ankara's accession effort succeed. "Armenia is a little split on the issue," Sahin said. "But even there, many argue that Turkey's accession process will give Armenia greater leverage for change."
Meanwhile, others see Turkey's European path as helping to widen EU influence with another regional big power, Russia. "Turkey can play a very important role here," says Winrow. "As can an organization such as the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). Turkey can show its strategic importance to Europe and get better and closer regional relations through this."
Jon Gorvett is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.