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Azerbaijan looks to Ankara.

TURKEY'S NEW role as a regional leader for the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union is facing its most serious challenge yet as the Azeri Turks continue to fight their common historical enemies -- the Armenians -- in one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history.

In a display of diplomatic fast footwork, Turkey has managed to avoid being dragged into a full-scale war on the side of its Azeri cousins. When Armenian militia forces advanced on the village of Sederek in the Azeri enclave of Nakhicevan, ten kilometres east of the Turkish border in May at least 20 Azeris were killed and hundreds of others wounded in the fighting.

Under the 1921 Kars treaty signed between Russia, Turkey, Goegia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Ankara has to be consulted before nay changes in the status of the enclave, which is offically part of Azerbaijan, even though the two are separated by Armenia. Reason enough to intervene militarily, the extreme right-wing and Islamic fundamentalist opposition in Turkey claimed.

Always eager to take a swing at the government, the Turkish president Turgut Ozal, joined in the fray from his sick bed in Houston, Texasm, where he has undergone surgery. "We have to send troops to Nakhichevan immediately," he declared.

Televised pleas for "any kind of help" from the leader of the enclave, Geidar Aliyev, who complained that Turkey was" not doing enough to stop the Armenians" brought nationalistic fervour to a pitch. And when the commander-in-chief of the forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States, General Yegeveny Shaposhnikov, stated that "third party intervention in the dispute could trigger a Third World War" tensions peaked.

But amid all the sabre rattling, Ankara has doggedly pursued its diplomatic efforts to rally Western support to stop the fighting. For the moment, they appeared to have paid off. With Washington's backing both the CSCE and NATO have protested Armenian aggression in Nagono-Karabakh and Nakhichevan, though they have stopped short of condemning Armenian by name.

More importantly, in a joint declaration signed in May in Moscow between the Turkish prime minister, Suleiman Demirel, and the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, both sides said the "changing of borders through the use of force" was unacceptable.

Moscow's recognition of the status quo, at least on paper, has been widely hailed as Ankara's most significant diplomatic achievement since the escalation of violence in the Caucasus. Indeed, the shooting has largely subsided. Yet most Turkish officials privately concede that the threat of war is far from over.

They point out that it is less due to international pressure than to the Azeris' sheer weakness that the Armenians have scaled down their attacks. "After all they've achieved their twin goals of seizing control of Karabakh and of punching through a corridor from Armenian into the enclave, without encountering much resistance," a senior diplomat pointed out. Others fear it is precisely the ease and speed with which the Armenians have made these terrtorial gains that might whip up their appetite for Nakhichevan.

At first sight, the mainly agricultural and economically beckward enclave seems an unlikely prize to fight for. Unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, it is mainly populated by around 310,000 Azeris. So what is the logic behind the Armenian attacks? The simple answer, analysts say, is that Nakhichevan is Turkey's lifeline to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

It is the only Turkic state with which Turkey has a common, albeit tiny (11km) border. As such, it is potentially a trade route (and arms route, the Armenians claim) between Turkey and Azerbaijan, andd onward to the Central Asian republics. As if to underscore the strategical argument, the Armenians have been concentrating their attacks on the hills alongside the Turkish border.

Unlike the central government in Baku, Aliyev has noticeably steered clear of Iranian offers to mediate in Nakichevan's dispute with Armenia. Many Azeris believe that while publicly condemning the Armenians, Tehran is quietly supplying them with arms.

Almost all claim that Russia is also arming the Armenians. They say Moscow is wary of Turkey's growing regional influence in its former empire, especially since many ethnic Turkic minorities within the Russian Federation itself, notably the Tatars and Chechen Ingush, are threatening to break way to form their own states.

But Russia and Iran's alleged support notwithstanding, it remains unclear how Armenia can realistically hope to occupy territory in Nakahichevan without provoking a Turkish reprisal. More important, analysts point out that it is clearly in Armenia's interests to get along with Turkey if it is to prosper economically.

Squeezed between two hostile neighbours, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia's only access to Western markets is through Turkish ports on the Black Sea. Armenia's dependence on Ankara's goodwill was largely responsible for the diplomatic rapprochement between the two sides last year.

As a step towards reconciliation, Turkey promised Armenia use of the Black Sea port of Trabzon and to open up the Markara and Alican border gates in the eastern province of Kars, as well as to establish formal diplomatic relations. In exchange it demanded that Armenia renounce all its territorial claims on Turkey, as well as on Azerbaijan.

The Armenian president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was reportedly in favour of the agreement. But he is believed to have backed off after strong opposition from the Armenian diaspora in the United States and Europe. The estimated three million members of the diaspora are the descendants of the large Armenian population, which fled from northeastern Turkey during the First World War.

The Armenians claim that around 1.5m Armenians were "massacred" during the period -- a charge Turkey staunchly denies. They also claim that much of north-eastern Turkey from which their survivors were exiled is rightly theirs. "The Turks are to those Armenians what the Nazis and Arabs combined are to the Jews, so they're twice as fanatical," says a Western diplomat.

In the longer term, Turkey's hopes of peace in the Caucasus are pinned on Western pressure on Armnia to stop its attacks. Armenian's expansionist behaviour prompted Demirel to warn Washington that "Turkey would not stand back and watch another Israel being born". And many Turkish officials privately complain that the West has turned a blind eye to Armenian aggression, "probably because they're Christian and we're not. The difference is that we Turks, we are not like the Arabs," a senior Turkish foreign ministry official said. As the clouds of war remain undispersed over Caucausus, General Shaposhnikov's warning of a wider conflict rings eerily true.
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Title Annotation:Turkey as the regional leader of the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union
Author:Apostolou, Andrew
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Words:1069
Previous Article:Between competing traditions.
Next Article:Coming back from the diaspora.
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