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One of leading Turkish newspapers, Today’s Zaman has published an op-ed by Leila Alieva, President of CNIS about the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, where the author explores possible outcome of Zurich process for Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. (Photo from Flickr)
Historic breakthrough Controversies: Will Azerbaijani lands be free soon?
by LEILA ALIEVA
Turkish President Abdullah Gül (L) with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarksyan (R), before their meeting in Turkey on Oct. 14. The Caucasus region is once more at the eve of events of historical significance — a century-old conflict between Armenia and Turkey may be coming to an end.
While leading politicians and the public in Europe and the US are watching events with excitement and judicious appraisal, the nearly 1 million Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugees wonder with growing concern whether the chances for their right to return to their lands and homes will decrease with these much-praised developments.
The biggest controversy is developing around opening the Armenia-Turkey border, as there are opposing opinions as to whether it will have a positive or negative effect on the resolution of the major conflict in the region.
While Azerbaijan’s lack of economic relations with Armenia does not cause any questions, Turkey’s closure of its borders with Armenia, rightly perceiving the escalation of war in 1992-1993 as a threat to regional security, intentionally or unintentionally came as a counterbalance to Russian military involvement on the side of Armenia and sanctions of the US government, which denied any aid to the democratically elected government of Azerbaijan.
However, the absence of economic relations with Armenia has an even deeper meaning, which can be understood in the context of the root causes of post-Soviet conflicts. The Soviet centralized economy deprived the Caucasian republics of a sense of interdependency on each other. All ties and trade relations between the republics were mediated by Moscow through an authoritarian command system, which led to the republics’ underestimation of the degree of their dependence on each other. Armenia, for instance, was sure that regardless of the state of affairs with Azerbaijan, that nation would supply oil or gas to the republic, even at the expense of their own citizens, under pressure from Moscow.
In fact, this perception has developed in the post-Soviet era. Regardless of their occupation and ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven more regions of Azerbaijan, Armenia was sure that there always would be Moscow, Brussels or Washington to pressure Azerbaijan to restore economic relations without reciprocal acts of compromise by Yerevan. In this sense, Turkey’s act of closing its borders was an important signal to Armenia: one cannot enjoy the fruits of cooperation with neighbors without respect for their borders and sovereignty.
A great deal of aid from the US since 1991 and significant aid from Europe, along with remittances and investments from the diaspora, has somewhat neutralized the effect of the absence of trade with its neighbors and fed into Armenia’s feeling that it is possible to survive without regulating relations with its neighbors.
And the last meaning of the closed borders is that although it bears a character of sanctions it is an alternative to a military way of resolving the conflict. Thus, the opening of the borders by Turkey may weaken the effect of the trade sanctions as a peaceful regulator of international relations by narrowing the space for non-military conflict resolution and increasing the chances of a forceful confrontation seeking the return of the lands.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out in the course of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first conflict to create deep divisions in the region and prevent South Caucasus states from uniting, unlike the Baltic states. After the open and bloody war which marked the beginning of the two states’ independence, the conflict reached its long-standing stalemate, which froze developments in the region in terms of security, politics and economics.
Since then, the South Caucasus knot has represented a complex mixture of local, regional and international interests, where the most pressing issue of the primary victims of the conflict — those displaced and deported — has been largely left behind the scenes of political intrigue.
Conflict overshadowed by rapproachment
The issue of ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan somehow became overshadowed by the resolution of historically tense Armenian-Turkish relations, mainly because the latter was on the agenda of more powerful actors and thus seemed easier to resolve.
The ongoing processes in the region create an impression that for Europe, the issue of how Turkey addresses its past and its Christian neighbor has been more important than the fact of Armenia’s present occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven more regions of the other neighboring state. Indeed, while an open intervention by Russia in Georgia caused immediate reactions from the European Union, followed by the dispatch of a monitoring group and intense negotiations with Russia at the highest level of the EU, the resolution of the Karabakh conflict was given to the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the mechanism of which contributed to the “frozenness” of the status quo, where military advances by one party (Armenia) in violation of the state border of Azerbaijan are used as a bargaining tool in negotiations. This created a precedent, which probably inspired Russia 14 years later to move into the territory of another Caucasus state.
The secrecy of the Armenian-Turkish bilateral negotiations was the one of the causes of reservations related to the generally positive assessment of this process, which may, according to the promoters of this rapprochement, create a favorable environment for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict. But the opposite is also true: it may not necessarily lead to the quick resolution of the conflict if it legitimizes selective recognition by Armenia of its neighbors’ borders, weakens the effect on the economy and makes the party violating borders more intransigent.
Moreover, if the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement, which contains an important provision on border recognition, remains without similar recognition in the other case — the recognition of Azerbaijan’s borders by Armenia — it looks as if one party — Turkey — is resolving its historical issues with Armenia at Azerbaijan’s expense.
In this political context, the recently observed tensions in Azerbaijani-Turkish relations would look quite natural, if not the extreme form of its expression and the fact that it took place at the level of state actors. The incident with the national flags could signal an emotionally charged popular reaction, if not the unanimously expressed opinion of 40 prominent public leaders in Azerbaijan who in a recently issued statement announced that they found it unacceptable that the flags had been removed from monuments, Turkish enterprises and educational institutions in Baku and noted that “the people of Turkey can be sure that nothing and nobody can spoil our brotherly relations.”
This confirms a major flaw in the international approach to resolving conflicts in the region, where the public plays very little role, if at all, in the “big deals” between the actors in the region.
The positive event — the signing of the Armenian-Turkish protocols — initiated from above rather than from below, besides lacking the specific vision of its implication for the major regional conflict, may have little influence in geopolitical terms on long-term stability and its short-term humanitarian implications. This is even more so if the interests of the primary victims of the current situation — refugees and IDPs from the occupied territories and other victims of the conflict — are not viewed as the most pressing issue today.
In this regard, the uncertain outcome of the resolution of the Karabakh conflict and the long awaited Turkish-Armenian rapprochement comes at too high a cost for those who have been suffering from the present, not the past, conflict.