Obama's Caucasus Diplomacy Flies Under Radar

Much of the derision that has accompanied the decision to award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama centers on the undeniable fact that, having been in office less than a year, Obama has not accomplished that much. The great irony is that the furor over the prize has obscured what may stand as one of the Obama administration's first real diplomatic triumphs: clinching an accord to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia.

Not only does this accord help move two countries past their long history of mutual distrust, with effective follow through it can also serve as the foundation for resolving the ongoing hostility between Armenia and Turkish ally Azerbaijan and in the process promote European energy security. The accord is even more noteworthy for the fact that it was negotiated with the joint support of the United States and Russia, which have more often found themselves at loggerheads over regulating conflicts in the post-Soviet space.

The deal, signed in Zurich on Saturday, calls for the Turkish-Armenian frontier to be opened in two months' time, and for the establishment of a joint historical commission to investigate the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman soldiers during the First World War. Parliaments in both Yerevan and Ankara must still ratify the deal, which thus remains tentative for the moment. Nonetheless, the very fact that Turkish and Armenian diplomats were able to sit down and negotiate such an accord, in the face of nationalist opposition in both countries (and among the politically important Armenian diaspora in the US and the Middle East) represents a significant achievement. Behind-the-scenes diplomacy on the part of the Obama Administration, culminating in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's mediation between the two delegations in Zurich, was central to getting the deal signed.

Despite the long-standing dispute over the nature and extent of the Ottoman army's massacre of Armenians in 1915, Ankara first closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. With a largely Armenian population but located inside Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh revolted against Baku's rule in the last days of the USSR and, with the help of the Armenian military, broke away from Azeri rule, becoming one of the many so-called "frozen conflicts" on the fringes of the defunct Soviet Union.

The Turkish government under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been under enormous pressure at home -- not to mention from Baku -- not to sign any deal with Armenia until the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is solved. While Armenia and Azerbaijan have also been negotiating over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, they have yet to reach any kind of agreement. Erdoğan's decision to seek an agreement with Yerevan anyway is a testament to his own political courage, and based on a calculation that Turkey's influence in the region and with the EU will be enhanced by ending its conflict with Armenia.

Erdoğan deserves much of the credit for recent progress, but the Obama Administration has intervened quietly to push the process along, assuring the Turks of its support despite opposition from the Armenian lobby in the US and pressing to separate the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement from the still intractable Nagorno-Karabakh issue -- while reassuring the Azeris that Washington remains committed to a resolution of that conflict as well. Obama's attempt to 're-set' ties with Russia has also been important in getting Moscow to play a constructive role.

While Armenia will be the main beneficiary in the short term, eventually the deal could be even more significant. Armenia's estrangement from Turkey and Azerbaijan has caused it to miss out on the Caspian energy bonanza of the past decade-plus. In the mid-1990s, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey signed an agreement to build oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian shore to Europe. Though Azerbaijan has the hydrocarbons, Georgia and Turkey have benefited from the construction and transit revenue that the pipelines continue to generate. Azerbaijan and Georgia were also able, thanks to this secure source of income, to wean themselves from dependence on Russia and pursue largely independent foreign policies. Armenia, the third post-Soviet republic in the South Caucasus, enjoyed none of these benefits.

Europe, meanwhile, gets a substantial percentage of its oil and gas either from pipelines through Russia, or from the Caspian via pipelines across Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey (the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan or BTC oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum or South Caucasus gas pipeline). This route remains vulnerable to disruption; the BTC pipeline was temporarily severed when Kurdish guerrillas bombed its Turkish segment in August 2008, just as Georgia was accusing the Russian air force of targeting the pipeline's Georgian link during the war between Moscow and Tbilisi. Though Russian attacks did not disrupt supplies, Russia made clear that it had the ability to sever the Caspian energy link, and that consequently the West should think twice before coming to the aid of Georgia in any future conflict with Moscow.

As Europe now seeks to build new pipelines from the Caspian, energy executives' eyes are turning to Armenia as a possible alternative to more pipelines through Azerbaijan and Georgia. A pipeline across Armenia to Europe would be much shorter (and hence cheaper) than existing or prospective routes through Azerbaijan and Georgia. Since Armenia also has better relations with Moscow, a pipeline across Armenia would face less political risk. The EU and its US allies thus have a strong geopolitical interest in a deal.

Russia stands to benefit too: Russian firms are seeking investment opportunities in Azerbaijan, while ending Armenia's diplomatic isolation would strengthen Russia's influence throughout the South Caucasus. Despite these opportunities, Russia has more often been an obstacle than a facilitator of reconciliation in the region. It remains skeptical of Turkey's attempt to become a regional energy hub, loathes the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and has long benefited from instability that prevents the US and EU from building new pipelines.

Hence the importance of the Obama administration's 're-set' in coaxing Russia into a more constructive role. By lowering tension over NATO expansion and missile defense, Obama has encouraged Russia to alter its strategic calculus in the South Caucasus, allowing Moscow's interest in expanding its commercial and political influence to trump its concerns about US efforts to contain it.

Obama's patient outreach to Moscow, coupled with Secretary Clinton's intensive mediation between the Turks and Armenians, were all necessary parts of the foundation leading to last week's agreement, as they will be to any future accord on Nagorno-Karabakh. Maybe not enough to justify a Nobel Peace Prize just yet, but certainly a real diplomatic accomplishment for an administration often accused of doing too little in its first nine months.