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Analysis: Erdogan and the Russian wall

Despite his attempt to sustain his jingoistic and expansionist demagoguery, Turkey’s Erdogan cannot circumvent Moscow

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Saturday 28 Nov 2020
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan arrive for a news conference in March 2020. Reuters

At last, after six weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan have set aside their arms and begun to implement a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement. Ankara, unable to have a say in that, has been equally frustrated in its efforts to secure a place at the confrontation lines as a monitor of a ceasefire that has so far held despite highly flammable conditions.

The ubiquitous pro-Erdogan media has attempted to convey the impression that the Turkish Foreign Ministry and Erdogan, personally, had been kept in the loop, moment by moment, as the ceasefire was being hammered out and that Turkey would have a part to play in subsequent security arrangements. Such claims soon proved hollow. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who has taken every opportunity to express his gratitude for the great services Turkey had performed for his country, has said that Ankara should play a part in shaping the future of the region as he pushed for a Turkish role in implementing the security arrangements.

Not surprisingly, such attempts ran up against a Russian wall reinforced by voices in Russia warning of the growth of Turkey’s destabilising influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and advising Moscow not to take risks that could further jeopardise peace and security in its strategic Caucasian flank. Russian officials had little difficulty coming up with reasons to exclude Turkey from peace-making arrangements. They could readily point, for example, to the jihadist mercenaries that Ankara had supplied to Baku.

The Russians are not alone in censuring a regime that is on the offensive in its pursuit of a neo-Ottoman revivalist dream. Washington, too, has expressed its concern over Turkey’s displays of military muscle. In fact, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quite explicit on this point in a recent interview with Le Figaro: “France’s President Emmanuel Macron and I agree that Turkey’s recent actions have been very aggressive. Europe and the US must work together to convince Erdogan such actions are not in the interest of his people.”

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar may have said that Turkish troops have completed their preparations and are now ready to go to Azerbaijan, but the announcement was surely for local consumption. Moscow has made it clear that the presence of Turkish troops in the vicinity of Nagorno-Karabakh would constitute a provocation. However, it did concede to allow representatives from Ankara to oversee the implementation of ceasefire arrangements from certain observation posts in Azerbaijan that would be worked out in coordination with the Russian Ministry of Defence.

As though the Russian bear was not a big enough spanner in his plans to exploit the Azerbaijani victory he helped produce, Erdogan also has to deal with France which has a sizeable and influential Armenian minority and which has become increasingly vocal on the situation in the Caucasus. Turkish behaviour in Nagorno-Karabakh is “unacceptable,” said the Minister Delegate for Foreign Trade and Economic Attractiveness Franck Riester in an interview with France Inter last Saturday.

Also, over the weekend French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan by phone after which his office released a statement saying, “The end of the fighting should now allow the resumption of good faith negotiations in order to protect the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and ensure the return of tens of thousands of people, who have fled their homes in recent weeks, in good security conditions.” The Élysée Palace has expressed worries about certain ambiguities in the ceasefire and called for international supervision of its implementation.

In a more remarkable development, the French Senate is set to vote on a resolution calling for France’s recognition of the independence of the predominantly ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, or the Republic of Artsakh, as it is termed in the resolution. Arguing in favour of the resolution, which has already been signed by the heads of the Senate’s five largest political factions, one of its co-sponsors, Senator Bruno Retailleau, said: “Only its independence can durably guarantee the rights and freedoms of the populations of Nagorno-Karabakh in the face of Turkish Islamist expansionism.” Although the resolution will remain little more than a symbolic gesture limited to Paris, as the idea is unlikely to gain traction in the EU, it reflects both the complexities and the sensitivities surrounding that fraught region.

So, what is the Turkish strongman’s next step on this issue around which are rallied the majority of Turkish political parties, apart from the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP)? After a long spate of setbacks on other fronts in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and against the backdrop of the economic straits at home, Erdogan clearly wants to capitalise on the victory of a brethren Turkic people and focus on the revival of the glories of the Ottoman Empire, in which context he directed Turkish public attention abroad through a high profile visit to the predominantly Turkish northern Cyprus.

However, according to Yevgeny Fyodorov, in Voennoe Obozrenie, Erdogan’s call for a “two-state solution” to the divided island is pure fantasy and will find no takers outside of the most marginalised countries. Therefore, he will try to engineer another small war, such as the one just won by Baku, because keeping conflict alive is the only way to sustain the momentum of the jingoistic demagoguery that has ensnared the Turkish opposition parties so many times before.

Will Erdogan succeed in what the opposition have termed his mad foreign follies? So far there are no signs that he will. Russia is still the main power that calls the shots in the southern Caucasus and it is to Moscow that Baku and Yerevan will look during the period of the agreement, which has been set at five years — understandably, given the levels of chronic tensions, mistrust and uncertainties in that rugged topography. Even Baku knows it cannot sacrifice Moscow just to please Ankara, however close its Azerbaijanis might feel to Turkey because of the ethnic/linguistic bond. As for Turkey, this bond affords it a margin of manoeuvrability and one imagines that Moscow is just waiting for Ankara to test its limits.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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