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Symbolism vs. Reality in the Caucasus -- More Reality is Needed

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Emotions are running high in the Caucasus this fall. And, as if the usual deafening fanfare of the World Cup soccer qualifying games was not enough, this year's games between Armenia and Turkey are an integral part of the "Soccer Diplomacy" initiative by the presidents of Armenia and Turkey. Tying Armenian-Turkish rapprochement to the world's most popular sport was a creative move, as it added sufficient passion, as well as an excuse and a cover for the dialogue. It was particularly smart since the politics overshadowed the sport and few noticed that the game itself was rather mediocre.

Still, as far as symbolism goes, the unfolding events in the Caucasus can compete with Dan Brown's Lost Symbol, providing a fertile ground for some future version of Robert Langdon. The actual signing of the Turkish-Armenian bilateral protocols in Zurich, Switzerland, on October 10 included a dramatic near-fiasco, a last minute delay reportedly averted by none other than US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While the signing of the protocols is a major milestone frequently described as "historic" by the media, the event conspicuously lacked any statements from the signatories. This is no coincidence, as the disagreement over the statements by the two foreign ministers, which, apparently, included references to the Armenian version of history and the Turkish appeal to resolve the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict soon, respectively, was the reason why Armenia's Mr. Nalbandian was so hesitant to enter the room. Although the sides settled for making no public statements in Zurich, both, of course, have made remarks similar to the prepared ones ever since. This points to a symptomatic attempt by Armenia and Turkey encouraged by their external partners to gloss over real challenges in pursuit of symbolic progress.

A more engaged and proactive Turkey is a positive presence in the region. Equally positive and commendable are its efforts to initiate a more open discussion on Anatolia's past and to encourage Armenia toward integrating with the rest of the prosperous region. For the Armenians and Turks to be able to, hopefully, begin overcoming and reconciling the decades of their mutually hostile and antagonistic historic narratives is heartening. However, in spite of all this symbolism reinforced by soccer and the international excitement, Armenian-Turkish rapprochement by itself addresses neither the most important real threat facing the Caucasus region, the unresolved Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, nor the actual reason why Armenia's border with Turkey is closed (the ongoing Armenian occupation of the internationally-recognized Azerbaijani territories). At the same time, whether mentioned explicitly or not in the protocols, the recent developments have helped to underscore the centrality of resolving the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

This is important for Armenia and the region because the spectacular economic development and social changes in the Caucasus, fueled by the Caspian energy resources and the expanding regional transportation infrastructure, have been happening exclusively between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. A quick glance at the map would show that opening borders between the poorest Eastern Anatolian regions of Turkey and Armenia, which is still estranged from the greater region, may help a bit but not much. Real change can come should Armenia's borders open with both Azerbaijan and Turkey helping to integrate the Armenian economy with the rest of the Caucasus and to partake in the region's prosperous present and promising future. Such a scenario can happen only as a result of a peaceful settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in accordance with the fundamentals of international law, thus ending the occupation of the Azerbaijani territories and establishing guarantees for a secure future for both the Armenian and Azerbaijani people. Yet, in Zurich, despite the presence of the three co-mediators of the Armenia-Azerbaijani talks, France, Russia and the United States, all shied away from even mentioning the white elephant in the room. At the same time, the persuasive statements from Turkey's leaders that the process of the Armenian-Turkish normalization is directly linked to tangible progress on the Armenia-Azerbaijan talks and Armenia's leaders claiming the opposite only adds to confusion.

As a result, we may end up in a situation when symbolism matters more than the reality. For instance, a vital element of the region's global significance and a strategic objective strongly supported by the United States -- adding a major new pipeline for transporting Caspian natural gas along the East-West corridor -- may be compromised. The existing part of the corridor is the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which originates in Azerbaijan, passes through Georgia and terminates at the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, has been a major success of the US and Turkish policies in 1990s and early 2000s. Now, however, Azerbaijan, after years of less than successful negotiating transit terms for natural gas with Turkey, is seriously considering an economically more sound deal with Russia. This would not only dramatically change the dominant paradigm of the region's energy development, including the prospects for export of the Kazakh and Turkmen natural gas reserves, but also, in a way, further diminish an actual value of promises implied as part of the Armenia-Turkey rapprochement. Plainly put, if new energy routes from the Caspian are not going to Turkey, any hopes, however distant they may be, for Armenia's transit role become even more far-fetched. Some imaginative optimists may envision a grand scheme based on involving Iranian resources instead, but that would be a subject for another conversation, which, at the moment, would be abstract at best.

For decades, history has cast a shadow over the political discourse in the Caucasus undercutting the region's potential. The debate has been especially painful for the Armenians and Turks. A noble effort to overcome dependence of conflicting visions of a common history should not be done at the expense of ignoring the reality of the present and promise of the future. Otherwise, this effort can be simply self-defeating.