Edmond Y. Azadian
Throughout its history, Armenia has served as a bone of contention between opposing camps or powers, except perhaps during the reign of Tigranes the Great in the first century BC. In AD 387, Armenia was divided between Persia and the Byzantine Empire. As the superpowers of the era divided Armenia’s territory, they extended their hands over that territory, building friendships and wishing their enemies would suffer under their yoke.
That was not the first time that Armenia was caught between a superpower rivalry. It happened many times in recent history as well. The year 1878 was a typical one, when the Russian armies defeated the Ottoman Empire and by the Treaty of San Stefano (Article 16), Armenians were promised some relief from the Sultan’s persecution. European governors were supposed to be sent to the Armenian provinces to make sure that promised reforms would actually be carried out by the Sublime Porte, as part of that treaty article.
But the treaty alarmed another superpower at the time, namely Great Britain, whose prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, reconvened the conference, this time in Berlin, to revise the terms of the San Stefano Treaty. His urgent reason was that the latter had allowed the Russian forces to have access to warm waters, which at that period, constituted a red line for the British Empire. Thus, the treaty was revised and the destiny of the Armenian provinces was moved to Article 61, completely diluting the terms of the earlier treaty, leaving once again the destiny of the Armenians to the tender mercies of the Sultan. In return, the Sultan ceded the island of Cyprus to Britain, to be used as a military base in the eastern Mediterranean. Thus, Cyprus was the price of the Armenians’ blood bartered between the Sultan and Disraeli.
After World War I, defeated Turkey rose once again and the Treaty of Sevres (1920) was replaced with the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), reducing the survivors of the Armenian community into a toothless minority in Turkey.
In view of these historic precedents, Armenians are well within their rights to be alarmed when regional powers sit down to negotiate — powers in whose dealings the Armenians have a stake.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Ankara, which was heralded with the earth-shaking deals with Turkey, is a case in point. It is a cause of concern for the Armenians, to say the least.
Within a short period of time, US Vice President Joe Biden visited Turkey to prod President Erdogan to behave as a proper NATO member. We need to be reminded that the Turkish government still refuses the use of Incirlik Airbase by the US forces against ISIS terrorists ravaging neighboring Syria.
Next, Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK visited Ankara with the same mission last week. In his turn, Pope Francis was on a peace mission, “dreaming to see the Armenian-Turkish border opened,” at the same time characterizing Erdogan’s “condolence” as an “extended hand” to the Armenians.
When powerful religious and political figures congregate in Ankara, each seeking a deal from Turkey, an arrogant leader like Erdogan has all the reasons in the world to get more impertinent. While negotiating with President Putin, he still continued spouting that President Assad of Syria must go, realizing full well that his statement could touch some raw nerves with the Russian leadership.
On the other hand, dismissively treating the US demands, just days after Mr. Biden’s visit to Istanbul, Mr. Erdogan issued a sharp criticism of the Obama administration, saying he was “against impertinence, recklessness and endless demands” coming from 12,000 kilometers away,” (New York Times, December 2).
Thus Erdogan declared his independence from both camps, thus far with impunity. His arrogance and bold moves to cut deals with Russia have alarmed some quarters in the West, wondering if Turkey is still living up to its obligations as a NATO member. There were also calls to dump Turkey as a NATO member.
“How long can the West pretend that Erdogan is an ally,” wrote Clifford D. May, in the Washington Times, on December 4, concluding his article with the following lines: “Viewed in this light, Mr. Erdogan looks like a neo-Ottoman, one who dreams of commanding Muslims — and those who have submitted to them — in many lands. If that is accurate, the rift between Turkey and the West can only widen.”
The consequences of Erdogan’s actions do not seem to worry him much. The rapprochement between Russia and Turkey gives us all the reasons to worry, because, like in other historic precedents, our cause may be sold down the river. Already, a worrisome signal was issued recently by a Russian analyst. Indeed, “It would be naïve to expect from Russia any serious actions in a hopeless situation with the settlement of the Armenian-Turkish relations,” said the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies Deputy Director Grigory Tishchenko.
The expert does not see any intention from Moscow to act as a mediator in the settlement of Armenian-Turkish relations, taking into account recent agreements reached between Moscow and Ankara.
Indeed, Mr. Putin was in Ankara to tend to other matters. Armenia may have been the last issue on his agenda.
Tectonic changes are taking place in the realignment of world powers. Mr. Putin is reacting to — or rather riding on — those changes. The sanctions regime instituted by the US and the West and the deliberated declining in oil prices to ruin Russia’s economy have triggered a strong reaction in Moscow. Rather than being intimidated, the Kremlin is acting boldly and has found partners to promote its new policies. One of those partners, surprisingly, seems to be Turkey.
A commentator in Armenia, Nayira Hayrumian, has stated in lragir.am: “There is no doubt that sudden decline of oil prices and devaluation of the Russian ruble do matter. However, the main reason has been stated by Sergey Lavrov — the purpose of Western sanctions is to change the regime in Russia. Apparently, Putin has felt the threat and has therefore announced the capitulations of the major project, Russian diplomats are using the phrase ‘irreversible line has not been crossed’ without specifying the point. Apparently the change of regime is that line.”
As far as the Kremlin is concerned, Putin has reshuffled all the political cards in Europe by the new Turkish-Russian key energy deal.
After outlining that deal, we need to find out if Karabagh, Armenian-Turkish relations and Syria’s destiny’s have been placed on the auction bloc or not.
The sanctions by the West to isolate Russia had an impact on the economy but thus far have failed to isolate Moscow. After striking a $400-billion energy deal with China, President Putin traveled to India to sign another energy contract for $40 billion. Besides the energy contracts, Russia signed agreements on building nuclear power plants in India and supplying arms to its army. Throughout the Cold War era, India depended on Russia to supply 75 percent of its armaments.
But the dramatic change came with the arrival of Mr. Putin in Ankara, when he announced: “Bearing in mind the fact that we have not yet received Bulgaria’s permission, we think Russia in such conditions cannot continue this project. If Europe does not want to realize this, then it means it won’t be realized. We will redirect the flow of energy resources to other regions of the world.”
This was the demise of the Southern Stream, which would have directed Russian gas to Europe through Bulgaria. But under pressure from the European Union, the Bulgarian government blocked the Russian project. The Kremlin decided, in turn, to look toward a new path and to build its pipelines through Turkey to a port in Greece and from there, to the rest of energy-starved Europe.
Russia had already signed an agreement to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey. The two leaders once again reiterated that bilateral trade will increase to $100 billion annually by the year 2020, from its current level of $35 billion.
Historically Russia, Iran and Turkey have been enemies and they have alternately ruled the Caucasus region. Even today, they still purse conflicting policy objectives but economics and world power shifts have been pushing these countries together; Turkey is frustrated by the European Union, Russia has been damaged by Western sanctions and Iran is under pressure (and sanctions) to give up its nuclear ambitions. Within the last few years, Turkey and Iran have increased their mutual trade 400 percent. As Iran emerges from the sanctions regime, it has the potential of becoming an economic powerhouse.
Presidents Putin and Erdogan have certainly discussed some political issues that the public is not privy to. Those agenda items must contain most contentious issues which are within the realm of both parties to resolve. One issue is the war in Syria, over which Moscow and Ankara are at loggerheads. It is believed that Mr. Putin will not give in on that issue. The other items are the sanctions instituted by the West against Russia. As an ally of the West, Ankara was supposed to subscribe to the sanctions regime, which it has not, in the process making Mr. Putin very grateful.
As the economy draws the parties closer, the issues and their solutions change their nature.
For example, the Karabagh conflict, the Turkish blockade of Armenia and the Armenian Genocide will certainly be viewed within the perspective of the current rapprochement rather than their intrinsic historic or legal significance. As mentioned above, the Genocide issue may not have any relevance within the current context of Russian-Turkish relations; therefore, we may not receive feedback on the issue. But, on the other hand, if the blockade will handicap free trade and the transportation between the two countries (and by extension with Russia’s Eurasian partners), Moscow and Ankara may find a solution to the blockade and the reactivation of the Abkhazian rail system.
With the current deal, Turkey — which is deprived of energy sources — all of a sudden will become an energy hub, controlling the pipelines extending to Europe and thus will be more amenable to reach some accommodation with Russian interests.
The Karabagh conflict will also be viewed and reviewed within the same context. If any improvement is recorded, it may not come as a Russian desire to please Armenia, but it will rather be driven by the interactive forces during these negotiations.
A Russian source seems to have insight about those negotiations. The solutions predicted may seem to be a double-edged sword. Thus, a Russian analyst, Yuri Glushkov, writes in Vestnik Kavkaza, a well informed source on the Caucasus region: “Economic cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan may help resolve crises in the South Caucasus, most importantly the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Notably, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev a call before the visit of Vladimir Putin. He invited Aliyev to the G-20 summit in Antalya next year and informed him about the Russian-Turkish agreements planned for signing.
“The Karabagh problem was undoubtedly raised at the negotiations of Erdogan and Putin. Both presidents have direct interests in the issue. Armenian membership of the Eurasian Union requires a quick resolution of its border disputes. The Armenian-Azerbaijani borders remain closed. Otherwise, all Russian investments in the country would be locked or at least rendered inefficient. Poor logistics emphasized that transit through Georgia, which has been moving away from the EEU, is the culprit.
“Turkey needs peace in the Caucasus, where it could realize its own interests as a partner of Russia and an ally of Azerbaijan. Clearly, only Russia can put pressure on Armenia to withdraw from the occupied provinces of Azerbaijan around Nagorno Karabagh. De-occupation would open borders, restore communications and form a basis for multilateral regional cooperation from which millions of inhabitants of the region would benefit. Moscow and Ankara have all the necessary opportunities to be guarantors of a new peace agreement between Baku and Yerevan without the need to involve any non-regional players, whose interests are often controversial and hazardous for the interests of the South Caucasus states.”
During the Soviet period, Nikita Khrushchev was rash enough to send a public message to Ankara that Moscow did not have any territorial claims from Turkey, disregarding the fact that Armenia was part of the Soviet Union and that it indeed had — and still has — territorial claims in Turkey.
Driven by Russia’s global priorities, we cannot expect Mr. Putin to act differently. The moral of the story is not to hold one’s breath to learn if President Erdogan will respond to President Serge Sargisian’s invitation to attend the Genocide Centennial Commemoration at the Tsitsernkabert.
Emboldened by his recent success, Mr. Erdogan himself will call the shots.
Once again, it is Turkey’s turn to determine Armenia’s fate.