The US anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan has helped transform the geopolitical landscape across Eurasia. As in Central Asia, the epicenter of the ongoing anti-terrorist operation, the contours of a new security arrangement are also developing in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey have finalized work on a tripartite agreement on regional security. The document reportedly includes provisions on combating terrorism and organized crime as well as protecting a number of oil pipelines, especially the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project.
Diplomats and law enforcement experts hammered out the final draft of the agreement in early January at a meeting in Ankara. Turkey's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ünal Çevikõz, who met with Azerbaijan's president Heidar Aliyev in mid-January to discuss the security blueprint, stressed the significance of the prepared document.
"The agreement between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia on cooperation in the military field envisages a number of measures relating to the carrying out of joint struggle against smuggling, terrorism, as well as the protection of the main export pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan," the Turkish diplomat said.
According to local reports, the idea of concluding a Turkish-Georgian-Azerbaijani security accord was first proposed by Turkey in mid-October 2001. Work on the trilateral security agreement began at a time when a number of Turkish top officials made statements on Turkey's intention to pursue a more robust foreign policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia in 2002. Aiming to enhance Turkey's strategic profile in the region, the Turkish government has begun drafting a new concept for military cooperation with the countries of the South Caucasus, media outlets in both Turkey and Azerbaijan have reported.
According to some reports, the new concept envisages, among other things, an upgrading of the Turkish-Azerbaijani military cooperation to a "qualitatively new level." Turkey is said to be planning to set up a military base in Azerbaijan, or at least modernize one of the existing Azerbaijani air bases.
These developments have prompted some local commentators to draw parallels between Washington's aggressive diplomacy in Central Asia and Ankara's policies in the Caucasus. Turkey, some analysts say, is using the anti-terrorist campaign as cover for an attempt to strengthen its presence in the strategically important and resource-rich region.
Turkish politicians have denied such assertions, specifically disavowing reports about Ankara's intentions to establish military bases on Azerbaijani soil. However, Turkish policy-makers and analysts confirm that Turkey is going to be a key strategic player in the Caucasus, and is ready to develop military cooperation with the countries in the region.
Even before Baku, Tbilisi and Ankara finished work on the draft security agreement, Turkish military specialists had arrived in Georgia to monitor the modernization of the former Russian air base. Recently, Russian newspapers reported that the issue of Turkish bases in Azerbaijan was discussed in Washington during the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to the United States. Russian sources claim Turkey aims to establish two military facilities in Azerbaijan - in Baku and in Kyurdamir.
The new security arrangement is likely to make two other countries of the region, Armenia and Russia, wary. According to some reports, Armenian officials have already voiced their concern that the trilateral agreement on military cooperation, of which Armenia is not a part, might violate the fragile strategic balance in the South Caucasus. The commentators in Yerevan argue that the expanded military ties between Baku and Ankara might embolden Azerbaijan to try to finally break the Nagorno-Karabakh deadlock and recapture its lost territories by force. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
As the researchers from the Baku-based Profile think-tank point out, Ankara finds itself in an uncomfortable position vis-à-vis the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the disputed enclave. On the one hand, Turkish leaders wholeheartedly support the claims of their ethnic kin in Azerbaijan. On the other, it is very well aware of the United States' and Russia's demands that the Karabakh conflict be resolved exclusively by political means. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Ankara is also under constant pressure from Washington to enhance cooperation with Armenia. It is probably not a mere coincidence that on January 11 Turkey resumed issuing entry visas to the Armenian citizens on is border - the practice that Ankara temporarily discontinued last year after the French parliament passed a law on Armenian genocide. Charter flights between the two countries were also resumed.
There has been no Russian official reaction yet to the stated intention of the three Caucasus countries to conclude an agreement on security and military cooperation. Some observers point out that the Azerbaijanis wisely have chosen not to ignore Russia's interests in the region.
Baku reportedly has agreed to extend a Russian lease on the Gabala radar station for 10 years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Russia views the radar station as crucially important to the country's early-warning national air defense system. If this decision is confirmed during President Aliyev's planned visit to Russia, "Moscow will be ready to turn a blind eye to the deepening of military cooperation between Baku and Ankara," said an Azerbaijani political scientist.
Russian press has also noticed that the sharp growth of Turkish diplomatic and military activity in the Caucasus was discussed "in a quite positive way" during the recent talks between Russia's head of General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin and his Turkish counterpart General Huseyin Kivrikoglu. "By all appearances," notes the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, "Russia is not against sharing its geopolitical influence in Transcaucasus with the West in the same manner as it is already doing in Central Asia."
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995, and a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York, 2000. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.