Development in the South Caucasus: The Role of Iran and Turkey Interview with Dr. Mitat Çelikpala
By Vali Kouzehgar Kaleji
International Peace Studies Center (IPSC)
Dr. Mitat Çelikpala is Associate Professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University, İstanbul. He was born in Ankara on 19 October 1969. He graduated from Middle East Technical University Dep. of Political Science and Public Administration. He received his MA and PhD on International Relations from Bilkent University. His areas of expertise are the Caucasus, North Caucasian Diaspora, people and security in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions and Turkish-Russian relations. In addition to Kadir Has University, he is lecturing in Turkish War College and Turkish National Security Academy on Turkish foreign policy, politics, history and security in the Caucasus and Central Asia and Turkish political structure and life. Dr. Celikpala is serving as Academic Adviser to NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism (DATR) and National Security Academy. He is the board member of Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Strategic Research Centre and Turkish Armed Forces Strategic Research Centre. He has several numbers of published academic articles and media coverage and analyses on above mentioned areas. In this interview, Dr. Çelikpala will answer to IPSC questions regarding development in the South Caucasus specially role of Iran and Turkey in this strategic region.
IPSC: After the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey has in recent years experienced a transformation in domestic policy and in foreign policy at the same time. In your perspective, what are the main transformations in Turkish foreign policy toward South Caucasus during AKP authority?
-As far as the Caucasus has concerned, I do not see any fundamental change in Turkish foreign policy thinking and making. Turkey’s main priorities are territorial integrity of all Caucasian states, peaceful solution to all conflicts, increasing cooperation economic and commercial relations, establishing energy links. There are the same priorities both before and after AKP rule. Thus, I may say that there is no watershed transformation in Turkey’s foreign policy in the Caucasus but continuation. Georgia is still an important partner for Turkey and Azerbaijan is the key for Turkey’s policies in the Caucasus. Armenia is also still the other I the Caucasus.
IPSC: Turkey and Armenia, neighbors sundered by a century of bitterness over the claim of mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks and Nagorno Gharabagh conflict. But in spite of these challenges, two countries normalized their bilateral relation since 2008. What’s your analysis from process of normalization of this relation?
– Both parties were tried for normalization but the relations are not normalized. They signed two protocols just after the August War of Russia and Georgia but the imagined result is not achieved. Border is still closed, issues are still on the table, 2015 (100th anniversary of 1915 events) is coming, Nagorno-Karabakh is still under Armenian occupation and protocols are waiting for ratification. Moreover, the leaders from both sides are making high volume speeches and accusing the other side to break the atmosphere. Under these circumstances, it is almost impossible to reach out any solution to any problem between the parties.
IPSC: After normalization of Turkey-Armenia relations, Azerbaijan government and nation criticized Turkey’s policy. What’s your opinion about Turkey-Azerbaijan bilateral relation after this event?
– It is apparent that Azerbaijan has not really been satisfied in one way or another of the signature of protocols and normalization with Armenia. During 2009, topics that were not expressed loudly in previous periods began to be voiced: they centered around subjects like the Azerbaijani bind on Turkey’s Caucasian policy, the existence of both country’s own interests and debates about the pricing of natural gas. This situation indicates that the two parties shifted their grounds on their mutual relationship in those days. But it seems that both of the parties are recovered after 2 years negotiations. Turkey quit the normalization process and parties signed new energy agreements. Both parties has started to develop more formal relations afterwards and trying to understand the others national interests than develop more realistic friendship and cooperation.
IPSC: Following the war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008 and the ensuing Russian recognition of independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Caucasus situation has changed. Turkey government planed a program called “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP)” for solving problems. What’s your about this program and its real results?
– Turkey’s first reaction to the atmosphere of uncertainty and chaos that was generated by war, had been the proposal for the formation of the CSCP, which aimed at ending the war promptly and finding solutions to the issues on the regional level. The proposal brought into agenda when Prime Minister Erdoğan stated that Turkey might attempt to constitute a “Caucasian Alliance” similar to the model in the Balkans. When Abdullah Gül announced support for this project, the process gained acceleration. The fundamental purpose of CSCP is contributing to the establishment of peace and stability in the region through dialogue. In this context, it aims to remove the tension with war-like tendencies among these countries by means of a settlement that puts economic and commercial relations to the center. It had been thought that this initiative might serve as a cooperation platform, which would bring South Caucasian countries and Russia together within the framework of OSCE principles and give priority to the establishment of security, stability prosperity in the region.
Although CSCP proposal has officially been delivered to all of these countries, no institutionalization was achieved until spring 2010. It seems that the biggest problem haunting the search for cooperation in the Caucasus is the lack of sufficient social, political and economic institutions in the Caucasian republics. An atmosphere of distrust still prevails among Caucasian countries. During the meetings held through the Turkish initiative, the parties declared commitment to common efforts and cooperation for solving the disagreements in the region; however, the negative atmosphere created by bilateral problems prevented the formation of the CSCP. The idea for the formation of a regional platform had come up due to the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of extra-regional solution suggestions; however countries like Georgia stood aloof to the proposal due to the importance they attached to the role of non-regional political actors such as the US and the EU. On the other hand, the suggestion to institutionalize CSCP according to the principles of OSCE meant the exclusion of regional actors such as Iran from the process and put parties of the issues like Abkhazia and South Ossetia into an ambiguous position.
Moreover, Turkey’s CSCP proposal caused suspicion, even a reaction, among Western allies, with US being in the first place. The reason for this reaction rested in the suspicion that Turkey might be taking steps independent of its allies, while the allies in the West were trying to build a common stance against the RF within the framework of the EU and NATO. It should be noted that the suspicious outlook at the initial stages of the proposal were fundamentally caused by the exclusion possibilities due to the stress on regionalism and the unease generated by the fact that the first negotiations were carried out with Moscow.
The Azerbaijani perspective regarded the CSCP at a ground in which the solution of Nagorno-Karabakh issue could be discussed by taking Azerbaijan’s arguments into consideration. In addition to the prospect of discussing and solving the issue on a regional platform including Turkey and the forging of a mechanism that would prevent the spread of conflict into the broader Caucasian region was regarded as reasonable. Armenia, on the hand, showed the tendency to consider the CSCP as a mechanism that would satisfy its own expectations. The primary expectations of Armenia were the opening of the Turkey-Armenia border; the possibility to negotiate with Turkey on new grounds; the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue in a satisfactory manner for Armenia; and CSCP’s being a supporting/complementary platform for the working of the AGİT Mink group. Furthermore, the expectation that CSCP would be a new and efficient mechanism in overcoming the economic and commercial damage caused by the Georgian war is also significant. When it comes to Georgia, it could be argued that it was inclined to see the CSCP as a settlement that would prevent aggressive Russian attitudes and especially help in the process of Georgia’s EU membership. However, Georgia became aliened with the CSCP as the settlement had the possibility of excluding the EU and hence not fulfilling its expectations in that respect. Even though Saakashvili declared his support for CSCP during Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Tiflis on August 14, Georgia’s overall tendency is not to take place in any common platform with Russia as long as it has not proven its trustworthiness.
In the end, the CSCP is still standing on the table as a proposal that has not been openly rejected by any of the parties in the Caucasus, but proves that institutionalization is dependent on the solution of the region’s problems and that regional competition is the biggest obstacle for cooperation and stability. CSCP, which has been a regional settlement idea with the claim to solve the region’s problems, has become the victim of those very same problems. The parties are continuing to pursue sort of a “wait and see” policy.
IPSC: For two decades, Turkey’s Caucasian Diaspora was active in supporting Chechens in their struggle against the Russian army and in turn, the Russian administration was tolerant towards the PKK activities in Russia. Indeed, two countries had different policy toward Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the new attitude of Turkish policy-makers has had a positive impact on foreign policy, allowing them to consider better relations with Russia and the possibility of cooperation to solve regional issues. What’s your opinion about impacts of new Turkey-Russia relations on developments of South Caucasus?
– Turkish Russian relations are developing since 2001 and both parties defined Eurasia as the field of cooperation/operation. Despite the fact that parties are on the different sides in some issues they prefer to look at the full side of the bottle. It is good in fact. But the basis interests are not identical. Russia supported Turkish initiatives in the region. During the RF Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s official visit to Turkey on September 2, 2008, the subject of CSCP proposal was also addressed along with matters of bilateral cooperation. At the joint press conference with Ali Babacan, Lavrov stated that CSCP is an embodiment of common sense since it dwells on prompting the countries of the region to solve their own problems and defined it as a settlement that would increase regional stability and decrease any potential for conflict. The “exclusion” of non-regional actors, primarily the US, is at the basis of Russia’s quick and positive response. Against the backdrop of positively developing relations between Russia and Turkey, the CSCP was perceived in the Caucasus as a settlement that would ensure the influential position of Russia in the region.
Leaders of both countries coming together regularly and evaluating the issues. But utmost the interests are different and this is a potential for any regional disagreements. Turkey wants to change the region in line with her interests on the other hand Russia wants to keep the regional balance with her.
IPSC: After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in November 2002, there was a marked rise in political and economic relations with Iran. But it seems to Turkey and Iran has been remain as a rival in South Caucasus. For example, Ankara had no attention to role of Iran in Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP). What’s you analysis in this regard? How can Iran and turkey cooperate in South Caucasus?
– Both parties are on different sides. Turkey do not see Iran as a partner in the Caucasus because of different reasons: Iran-Armenia relations, US sanctions, Iran’s attitude towards Azerbaijan and energy game. These are uncompromising points. Under current conditions, I do not see any prospect of cooperation between Iran and Turkey in the Caucasus.
IPSC: And finally, what’s your suggestion for cooperation between main players of South Caucasus including three countries of the region, Russia, Turkey, Iran, EU and the United States? If it’s possible according to different goals and interest?
– No I do not see any change of position in the existing camps in the Caucasus. Turkey is furthering its cooperation with Georgia and Azerbaijan. Armenia is still the other for both Azerbaijan and Turkey. The US seems alienated itself from the region and the EU is struggling with its own serious problems. Thus Russia and Turkey are the main poles for the Caucasian states/nations. Iran is offering almost nothing to those actors under current developments.
IPSC: Thanks for your kindness and cooperation.