Turkey’s Caucasus dreaming

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 24 Jun 2021

Turkey’s foreign policy continues its wayward course under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s direction to the confusion of friends and sceptics alike

Even in the corridors of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), one can hear grumbles echoing what the country’s opposition parties are saying out loud: that Turkey’s foreign policy is confused and contradictory.

If there is one constant, it is that it has strayed too far from the principles that prevailed throughout most of the life of the Turkish Republic until the AKP era. Even the circles of power in Turkey sometimes feel a sudden need to take a trip down memory lane.

Pro-government mouthpieces, such as the Daily Sabah newspaper, thus often use reverential tones for Turkey’s Western allies and affirm Turkey’s indispensable commitment to protecting the Free World and its neighbours in the Balkans and the Baltic.

However, this need then passes, sometimes overnight, with Ankara going back to chasing glorious ambitions on eastern frontiers, turning its back on erstwhile friends and allies, and lashing out at traitors and conspirators who suggest that Turkey lacks the wherewithal to fulfil its dreams.

One such reversal occurred after the NATO summit in June and the sought-after 45-minute meeting on the sidelines between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Joe Biden. All Erdogan came away with in the event was a franchise to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, greeted at home, including in some pro-government circles, with as much enthusiasm as it was received by the Taliban.

But at least Kabul was in the right direction and towards that “alternative geography” that the Turkish president has insisted that Turkey needs and away from the West that he has distanced in ways that cannot be measured geographically.

Not surprisingly, Erdogan’s next stop after the NATO summit in Brussels was Baku in Azerbaijan, the gateway to the Turkic east which is now grateful for his military support without which it could never have defeated Armenia in the six-week battle over Nagorno- Karabakh. 

His first stop was in Shusha, which the Armenians call Shushi. On this “liberated land,” in the words of the state media, Erdogan spoke of establishing a regional entity in this ethnically and politically complicated area seething with animosities.

The following day, he delivered a speech in the Azerbaijani National Assembly, in which he called for creating “a platform for peace in the Caucasus.” This would include, in addition to Turkey and Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran, Georgia and Armenia.

But the latter did not even have to wait until he had finished his sentence to reject his call, especially after the visit to Shushi that Yerevan called “provocative” and “harmful to international efforts to establish stability in the region.”

Some months back, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made a similar call, and it looks as if Erdogan’s reiteration will meet the same response. The silence from Russia, Iran and Georgia spoke loudly enough. All share borders with Azerbaijan, so it is little wonder that they have looked askance at Erdogan when he speaks of peace, especially when he then talks of building military bases in Azerbaijan in accordance with the “Shusha Declaration” to boost security cooperation and of a railway link between Nakhichevan and Kars.

When asked about Turkey’s plans in Azerbaijan during a press conference with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “we don’t comment on rumours.” The same day, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow was closely monitoring developments around a potential Turkish military base in Azerbaijan, a move that could require Russia to take steps to ensure its own interests.

“The deployment of military infrastructure by the [NATO] alliance countries near our borders is cause for special attention, as well as a reason for us to take steps to ensure our security and interests,” he said.

As for the Turkish-Azerbaijani assertion that their military cooperation is not aimed at others, this is difficult for anyone in the vicinity to take seriously, not least Armenia, which wants Russia to increase its peacemaking forces on Armenian territory in anticipation of a possible ceasefire violation.

As for Russia, according to the Ahval (Arabic) news site, it cannot afford to turn a blind eye to Turkish expansionism. If it gives Ankara some leeway, it will ensure that this remains within certain bounds and is consistent with the Kremlin’s geopolitical calculations.

Meanwhile, the Turkish regime would be wise to reevaluate its choices, given the short- and long-term repercussions Erdogan’s foreign policies have had for the Turkish people. Yet, for the Turks this is probably too much to hope for.

Only a few days ago, Erdogan announced a new currency-swap deal with China. This was probably his answer to Biden’s Build Back Better World Partnership, the project he has proposed as an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road.

At all events, no sooner were the words out of Erdogan’s mouth than the Turkish lira fell again against the dollar for the second time in less than 24 hours.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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