Pros and cons of a six-country Caucasus initiative
The idea that a six-country regional cooperation initiative involving Russia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia can turn the South Caucasus into a region of peace, stability and prosperity is again gaining currency in light of recent positive signals between Ankara and Yerevan regarding normalization of relations.
Last December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested the initiative, which was endorsed by Moscow, Tehran and Baku, saying that it would be a win-win for all regional actors in the South Caucasus. The end of the 44-day conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region with an Azerbaijani victory has opened a new chapter in the history of the South Caucasus, the Turkish leader added.
The cessation of fighting has forced regional actors to recalibrate their foreign policies, with Ankara and Yerevan sending positive messages over a possible normalization of relations, and Erdogan again bringing the six-country regional platform to the fore. “If Armenia joins this process and takes positive steps, a new page in Turkish-Armenian relations can be opened. If new opportunities arise, it is obvious that Armenia will also have a serious advantage,” he said.
Although Ankara believes that permanent peace is possible through mutual security-based cooperation among the six countries, can such a regional platform be established? What are the likely opportunities and challenges resulting from the so-called “six-country regional mechanism”? How do the six countries view such a proposal?
Turkey, which threw its full diplomatic and military support behind Baku during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, wants to consolidate its presence in the South Caucasus by deepening economic, energy, transportation and trade ties with regional countries. Ankara, which pursues its own regional ambitions, seeks to benefit from the new realities on the ground, considering Russia, among the other actors, as the main partner in this aim. Therefore, it is the main supporter of this initiative.
Russia is seeking to expand its influence in a region that it considers its backyard, and is welcoming the proposal, which is likely to significantly reduce Western engagement in the vicinity. If such a platform is established, the US, which recently withdrew from Afghanistan, may find its interests damaged in the South Caucasus region, which was mostly ignored by the previous Washington administration.
Russia’s role in ending the conflict and establishing a joint observation center with Turkey in Nagorno-Karabakh shows that Ankara and Moscow have agreed to carve out the South Caucasus region as their mutual sphere of influence. Ankara and
If a six-country regional cooperation platform is established, the US, which recently withdrew from Afghanistan, may find its interests damaged in the South Caucasus region.
Moscow consider the new reality in the region and the weakening US position as a golden opportunity to take control by blocking the latter’s engagement with the South Caucasus countries, particularly its key ally Georgia.
This is where the main obstacle to the platform’s establishment appears. Despite the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the region is far from a bed of roses. There are conflicting interests and complicated relations among the six countries. First and foremost are the Georgian-Russian relations. Erdogan’s regional proposal is a concern for Georgia, which says it will not take part in any regional platform with Russia unless the latter ends its occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi, a close Western ally, faces security challenges from Russia, despite enjoying good relations with the other five countries.
The second major obstacle is the Armenian position on an initiative that includes Turkey and Azerbaijan — two countries with which it has poor relations. In order to include Armenia on such a platform, Yerevan needs to step back in terms of its border claims and recognize Baku’s territorial integrity, which is unlikely for now as the loss of the war to Azerbaijan is still on the minds of the Armenian people.
It is not only Ankara, Moscow and Baku that stand to benefit from this regional initiative, but also Tehran, a critical actor in the region. With the recent election of Ebrahim Raisi as president, Iran seems to have revised its foreign policy toward the South Caucasus, while considering the altered geopolitical landscape in favor of Baku.
Tehran has been supportive of the Armenian position for years given its security concerns related to its own Azeri population. However, today, pragmatism is forcing Tehran to establish stable and balanced relations with both Yerevan and Baku. In this context, it was no surprise to see Iran supporting the six-country regional platform proposed by Turkey, which also cooperates with Russia and Iran via the Astana process for Syria.
Thus, the change of the geopolitical landscape in the South Caucasus, the weakening of the US position, and increasing Russian and Turkish influence in the region have thrust the six-country regional initiative into the spotlight. However, the complicated relations between these countries, despite some mutual interests, mean that such a mechanism faces a long and a challenging road ahead.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz