Turkish officials view the recent leadership turnover in both Azerbaijan and Georgia as a diplomatic opportunity to promote stabilization in the strife-prone Caucasus. In particular, Ankara wants to act as a conflict mediator, with the aim of smoothing the way for pipeline construction in the region.
Many political analysts believe the Turkish initiative stands little chance of success. They point to Armenia's antagonistic relationship with both Turkey and Azerbaijan as a major stumbling block. There have been few signs in recent months, they add, that the historic enemies are prepared to set aside feelings of mutual hostility in order to promote stabilization measures, such as a lasting political settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Turkey opened its diplomatic campaign in early January, when Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul paid his first official visit to Baku since Ilham Aliyev's election as Azerbaijani president last fall. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Azerbaijan, which has strong cultural links to Turkey, is Ankara's staunchest ally in the Caucasus. While Gul's talks with Azerbaijani officials spanned a wide variety of economic and political issues, the topic of regional security clearly dominated the meetings.
Gul mentioned repeatedly that Turkey sought to increase its role in the Karabakh peace process. Negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are currently stalemated. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We are working on producing solutions [to the Karabakh issue] by bringing together the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Turkish foreign ministers," Gul said at a joint news conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Vilayat Quliyev. Gul went on to say that a "trilateral meeting" would be convened at an unspecified future date.
Turkish and Azerbaijani officials also discussed Baku's potential membership in NATO. Turkey is scheduled to host the upcoming NATO summit in June.
Turkey's recent conflict-settlement efforts are reportedly not limited to Azerbaijan. According to a January 10 report in the Turkish daily Hurriyet, Ankara is also trying to position itself as a go-between in Georgia, seeking to ease tension between the new government in Tbilisi and the autonomy-minded region of Ajaria. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ankara's eagerness to improve the security climate in the Caucasus is clearly driven by a desire to keep the construction timetable for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline on track. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In Baku, Gul and Quliyev both expressed hope that pipeline construction would be completed in 2005, as planned. "The Caucasus retains its strategic importance as an East-West energy and transportation corridor, and as a door for Turkey to Central Asia," Gul stated during a speech at Baku State University.
Upheaval in Georgia in late 2003 -- namely the rigged November election that sparked popular protests, culminating in former president Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation initially raised concerns about potential BTC construction delays. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Those concerns have eased in recent weeks, especially after the January 4 special presidential election, won by Mikheil Saakashvili, passed without prompting fresh unrest. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Saakashvili has repeatedly stated that his administration will be committed to the BTC project and will seek to foster closer ties with Turkey. "The important thing is to increase our economic cooperation," Turkey's NTV television channel quoted Saakashvili as saying January 9. "We [in Georgia] are planning significant tax rebates for small and medium-sized businesses. In this way, Turkish capital will be able to come here and enter new fields of business."
While bilateral Turkish-Georgian relations may be poised for a breakthrough, prospects for significant improvement in the Caucasus' overall security climate appear uncertain. For all the talk about wanting to foster a Karabakh settlement, Gul gave no indication that Ankara would make a policy shift that could facilitate peace talks.
At present, Turkey's ability to promote the Karabakh peace process would seem limited, given that Ankara does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Armenia. Gul stressed that back-channels of bilateral communication have opened in recent years. Yet, Turkish-Armenian relations remain strained over the highly contentious Armenian Genocide debate, as Ankara steadfastly refuses to recognize that the mass deaths of Armenians in eastern Turkey during World War I were the result of well-coordinated Turkish government action.
Some Azerbaijani observers have speculated that Turkey's desire to gain admission to the European Union could put pressure on Turkish officials to normalize relations with Armenia. However, Gul ruled out the possibility of Ankara making a good-will gesture in the near future, such as opening Turkey's border with Armenia. Indeed, he stated in Baku that the border's reopening would be conditional on the negotiation of a lasting political settlement for Karabakh.
Turkey's room for maneuver is limited to a certain extent by Ankara's desire not to upset the special relationship with Azerbaijan. Turkey has provided firm support for Azerbaijan's negotiating position; that Karabakh be granted broad autonomous authority while remaining part of Azerbaijan. Recent statements by Azerbaijani officials indicate that Baku is skittish about any potential Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. "If Turkey makes even a minor move towards Armenia, it may harm both Azerbaijan's and its [Turkey's] own national interests," Quliyev, the Azerbaijani foreign minister, told ANS TV in Baku on January 10.
Quliyev himself has given no indication of late that the Azerbaijani government is prepared to engage Armenia. During the ANS interview, for example, he complained that "Armenia is constantly keeping the fictitious genocide issue on the agenda." Such comments are sure to antagonize Yerevan.
Following his talks in Azerbaijan, Gul traveled to Iran, where his discussions also concentrated on security. The Turkish foreign minister pressed for an Iranian commitment to contain possible Kurdish radical activity on Iranian soil, especially that carried out by the PKK. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Iranian leaders, however, reportedly made no promise that they would expand cooperation with Ankara on Kurdish issues.
"Gul did not get the answer he expected from Iran following his demand that Tehran declare the PKK a terrorist organization," said a commentary published January 11 by the Turkish newspaper Daily Milliyet.
Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.