Commentary: A Dangerous Encounter


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Small nations on the periphery of larger powers or empires benefit and survive when two major countries are in opposition or in competition. Armenia was able to manage its international relations, as long as Moscow opposed Turkey. Now that Russia and Turkey are mending fences, will that be at the expense of Armenia?

In Armenia’s strategic calculations, the Russian army base on its territory has only one significance: to defend Armenia against Turkey in case of a war or threat of a war. The Russian side may also have other objectives in projecting its power in the Caucasus region — objectives that are not germane to Armenia’s national interests, but they have been accommodated for the benefit of the larger good, meaning protection against a potential Turkish threat.

Since Vladimir Putin’s peace initiative, Russo-Turkish relations have been improving and a with a recent visit by President Dmitry Medvedev, they have reached an ultimate level, especially in trade and economic ties. It is predicted that very soon trade between the countries will hit the mark of $100 billion, making Russia one ofTurkey’s major trading partners. During Medvedev’s visit, 20 agreements were signed strengthening trade and  economic ties between the two countries. Although outwardly benign, these
agreements have some strategic significance for Armenia. For example, one of the agreements relates to a nuclear power plant to be built by Russia in Turkey. This is in direct competition with Armenia’s nuclear plant through which Armenia was expecting to sell electricity to Turkey. Armenia’s Medzamor plant will be decommissioned by 2016 and a new one will be built, financed by foreign investment. Turkey’s competing plant may jeopardize  Armenia’s prospects to replace its aging nuclear plant or in the best-case scenario, Armenia will not only lose an important customer for energy
export and, even more difficult, will have a competitor across the border.

This is a drawback on the business front for Armenia. Yet parties have also talked about Armenian-Turkish relations, suspended protocols and opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey.

Here, Medvedev’s pronouncements are extremely neutral and they don’t reflect at all the commitment of a strategic partner. “Russia and Turkey are interested in developing and consolidating stability in the Caucasus region, including the resolution of the Karabagh conflict. Russia, for its part, is determined to do its best to move ahead that process, utilizing all its means and its political clout,” said the Russian president.

As far as the Karabagh conflict is concerned, Medvedev has sounded even more passive by announcing: “We are not party to the conflict; we are just mediators, but we are actively engaged in the process.”

While President Medvedev was visiting Ankara, his defense Minister Anatoli Serdyukov was in Baku, meeting with his Azeri counterpart Safar Abiev, who has made a blunt threat of war, by announcing: “The Minsk Group’s peaceful negotiations have not yielded any results and all the actions taken thus far may lead to unpredictable conclusions.”

It would have been interesting to hear the Russian defense minister’s reaction to the threat, but the media is silent on that.

Although it is very difficult to draw conclusions from Medvedev’s discussions in Ankara, Turkish media comments indicate that the Recep Tayyip  Erdogan’s administration has not been able to impress Medvedev enough to pressure Armenia to come to terms with Turkey. Medvedev has reiterated the position of the other co-presidents of the Minsk Group, that the adoption of Protocols must not be tied to the Karabagh issue.

However, Russia has endorsed a formula, which turns the Karabagh conflict into a square wheel: that the solution must reflect the principles of the territorial integrity and self-determination. This equivocal formula coincides with the Azeri position in the end if we define self-determination as  autonomy, it may land Karabagh within Azerbaijan’s borders, unless the Armenian interpretation is adopted that Karabagh had seceded from the Soviet Union the way Azerbaijan did, therefore Azerbaijan did not include
Karabagh to begin with as part of its territory.

Azeris promise the “highest level of autonomy” to Karabagh Armenians under Azeri rule. This is the kind of “autonomy” Armenians already “enjoyed” in Sumgait.

With all these nuances and fallout from Medvedev’s visit to Turkey, one thing is simple: any major country can sell out Armenia for minor gains, with impunity.

Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on President Barack Obama to refrain from using the term “genocide” on his Armenian Martyr’s Day proclamation and he gave in, because in the balance, Armenia does not carry weight politically. The only counter-balance to that is to politicize the community and amplify our lobbying power in Washington.

Similarly, Medvedev most probably compromised Armenian interests in Ankara, if he was able to wrest from the Turks a pledge that they will not help the Nabucco project by-pass Russia. Ankara  and Moscow have agreed on a common position vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear ambitions, on Iraq’s future and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How much this compromise will hurt Armenians from this visit may come out soon, to be reflected in Moscow’s behavior towards Armenia, in coming months.

Medvedev’s meeting with Turkish leaders, with all good intentions, must be seen as a dangerous encounter.