YEREVAN: Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s recent invitation to Turkish President Abdullah Gul to visit Yerevan to watch a football match together was historic. Given the two countries’ long-strained relations, this visit would have been remarkable at any time. But coming as it does only one month after the alarming Russian-Georgian confrontation, it may offer real hope that tensions in the volatile Caucasus region can be eased.
Of course, ancient and difficult issues divide Armenia and Turkey. But now is the moment for both countries to put the past aside in order to address their common security concerns. In the new context set by the war in Georgia, the urgency of Turkey becoming a real bridge between the nations of the Caucasus is not lost on anyone.
This expectation is an inevitable consequence of Turkey’s geography and history. Situated figuratively between modernity and tradition, secularism and Islam, and democracy and tyranny, Turkey also is an actual physical bridge between East and West. For the peoples of the Caucasus, Turkey marks our path to Europe. It is a NATO member, bordering the three Caucasus republics that have NATO Individual Partnership Action Programs. It aspires to join the European Union, and would bring the EU to our three borders, even as we, too, aspire to join one day.
Indeed, Turkey has never missed an opportunity to present itself as a regional broker. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey proposed the Black Sea Economic Cooperation. This year, as the American-led effort to mediate a Middle East peace settlement began to falter, Turkey took up the job of mediator in both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the conflict between Syria and Israel. Now, in the immediate wake of the Russia-Georgia crisis, Turkey’s leaders have stepped forward once again to take a leadership role in the Caucasus.
The world must fervently hope that the Turkish proposal for a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform is more serious and sustained than previous similar efforts. But, in order to succeed, Turkey must firmly pursue a pledge from all the region’s players to repudiate the use of force in settling their disputes. If this pledge is adopted and respected, conflicts in the region will be viewed in a wholly different, more tolerant context, marking a historic breakthrough to peace.
In fact, why not take the idea of such a pact one step further? We in this region can, and I believe should, call for a non-aligned Caucasus, free of security blocs and adversarial alliances. After all, security alliances and guarantees only create dividing lines, with their attendant security challenges.
Our countries and peoples have, throughout history, lived under a common umbrella for far longer than we have been divided. Today, we share a common vision of European integration, and it is in this broader context that our conflicts should be resolved. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visits to Georgia and Russia proved that there is no substitute for Europe insofar as the Caucasus is concerned. Only Europe can play the role of honest broker in the region’s atmosphere of suspicion and intolerance.
But, at the end of the day, we ourselves must be willing to work toward a region of peace and cooperation. The Caucasus is too small a space for closed borders and explosive conflicts. Although some of those tensions appear purely bilateral, the Georgian-Russian conflict demonstrates that there is no such thing anymore in this globalized world, and certainly not in this interconnected region.
In fact, real peace in the Caucasus requires two key strategic transformations. One is a lesson from history: Russia’s strategic interests here cannot be ignored. To believe and behave otherwise would lead to regional chaos. The other lesson is that Turkey and Armenia cannot remain adversaries forever. There must be normalization in our relations in order for the Caucasus to coalesce into a functional region.
Ironically, both Russia and the United States recognize that this is in their interest. The Russians view normal relations between Turkey and Armenia as a way to minimize Georgia’s strategic role in the region. The US views an opening to Turkey as a way to decrease Armenia’s real and imagined reliance on Russia.
Beyond the emotional impact of President Gul’s visit to Yerevan, real improvement in Turkish-Armenian relations requires opening the two countries’ closed border – the last in Europe. Or, for a start, the existing railroad link between the two countries could be made operational. If this does not happen within the coming weeks and months, then Turkey will have demonstrated that all this was just a show.
President Gul’s visit does mark a watershed – either as a failure to make history, or as the beginning of a new era.
Vartan Oskanian,Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1998 until April 2008, is the founder of the Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).