Saturday, 25 June 2011

Karabakh peace talks fail, to nobody's surprise

Who would have expected it? The latest round of peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh, held in the Russian city of Kazan, have produced no results.

It's worth looking into the statements which emerge - or, more tellingly, do not emerge - after the collapse of these summits. They tend to give an admittedly fragmented and partial insight into why the meeting failed and who was responsible.

First off: the Minsk Group co-chairs, tasked with settling the conflict, have not released a boilerplate statement welcoming the progress made and calling for greater efforts, as they usually do. It's still very early and one will probably be forthcoming once the lower-level talks today (June 25th) have wrapped up. Nonetheless, the absence of a press release at the end of the main day of talks is telling. It suggests that either the co-chairs are confident some more positive steps can be eked out today, or that there is nothing worth releasing a statement about. Probably the latter.

Secondly, the joint release that was made - by Russia, hosting the summit, as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan - was utterly anodyne. The only reference to the results is that "common understanding had been reached on a number of issues whose resolution will promote the conditions for approval of the Basic Principles." 

No details on these issues; no assessment of how far is still to go. Does this, for instance, mean any agreement on the perennial issue of withdrawing snipers from the frontline? On the wording of the preamble to the Basic Principles? Lacking anything of substance, we can only conclude that this statement means that nothing has changed.

So, who's to blame? Sifting the tea leaves of state-friendly media in both Baku and Yerevan suggests that in this instance Azerbaijan was responsible. The Armenian Foreign Ministry was quick off the mark, claiming that Baku "was not ready to accept the latest version of the basic principles" and wanted around a dozen changes. By contrast Azerbaijan's pro-government media has not flagged up the failed talks, and neither the Foreign Ministry nor the president's office have issued a statement. 

Of course, it's very early days. However, usually Azerbaijan and Armenia both scramble to put out statements blaming the other side as soon as they can - Baku's silence suggests that it was responsible for the breakdown of talks. But with the negotiating process so shrouded in secrecy and rhetoric, fully understanding what went on in Kazan is simply impossible.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

‘Last chance’ on Karabakh peace plan in Kazan?

Seasoned Karabakh-watchers could be forgiven for thinking that the wave of speculation and anticipation about a forthcoming trilateral meeting in Kazan between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian presidents is just grist to the mill. 

Before every major summit to resolve the twenty-year old conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, local news agencies are filled with commentaries predicting a 'breakthrough'. Then the meeting is held, a terse handshake is photographed, 'significant progress' is recorded towards agreeing on the Basic Principles for settling the conflict... and then both sides resume their sniping at each other, both literal and metaphorical.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Central Asia: The Discourse of Danger

That's the title of an excellent new piece by the academcs John Heathershaw and Nick Megoran at OpenDemocracy, building on a paper they recently wrote for Chatham House's International Affairs journal (which I missed until now - the Chatham House site is down at the time of writing).

In their OpenDemocracy article Heathershaw and Megoran lucidly outline the distorted, fragmentary understanding - or lack of it - among Western policymakers towards Central Asia.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Turkey's CHP: The aftermath

The failure of the main opposition party, the secular CHP, to hit a 30% target set by its new leader has provoked a growing storm of intraparty criticism, according to the media. Despite the fact that the party gained only 25% of the vote, CHP boss Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has put on a brave face, pointing out that he CHP is the only party to have increased its number of parliamentary seats in the election. True enough, but that has everything to do with constituency boundaries and very little to do with popularity. He is clear, though, that the number of votes is “not sufficient”.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Turkish Election - Notes from the Field Part 3

Election day was peacefuland fairly relaxed in much of Istanbul. The relaxed attitude of many locals and the absence of election paraphernalia in many parts of the city belied the turnout, which in Istanbul was an impressive 81% (for the full election results including turnout, see Hurriyet’s excellent interactive map). In many of the shops and stalls in the city’s commercial areas, an informal straw poll revealed quiet but committed support for the AKP.

Although most people were not flag-waving acolytes of the ruling party, and many thought that opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had done a good job in modernizing the secular CHP, for them there was no arguing with the AKP’s track record over the last nine years. Bread-and-butter issues, namely the economy and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s vision to modernise Istanbul’s infrastructure, were at the forefront of their concerns. The issues which most columnists and analysts fret about – foreign policy; the AKP’s perceived slide towards authoritarianism; attacks on press freedom; and the government’s failure to solve the Kurdish issue – were marginal.

The CHP seemed to receive a stronger showing among young people concerned by the AKP’s growing religious conservatism. One international relations student at Istanbul University described herself as a pious Muslim, but one who disagreed strongly with the AKP’s efforts to “give people no choice if they are religious, cover themselves with headscarves [or not].” She said that her and most of her friends had voted for the CHP.
The CHP's campaign office

In the late afternoon I popped into the CHP’s Istanbul office, a shiny modern block which stands out in a tired neighbourhood on the European side near the Bosphorus Bridge. The building’s front is an enormous image of Kılıçdaroğlu looking suitably serious. Inside, the CHP team, many of them sharply dressed and in their late twenties, ran an operation which was sleek but lacked a certain buzz. A press room on the fourth floor was barely half-full and the staffers in the lobby seemed to be at something of a loose end.

This is not a definitive assessment, and the offices may have been packed to the rafters earlier in the day, but an hour before the polls closed the CHP headquarters did not look like the nerve centre of a winning party. Questions are now being asked about Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership, which I will cover in a subsequent post.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Turkish Election - Notes from the Field Part 2

The results of Sunday's election were more or less expected, but still held a few surprises. Everybody anticipated that the ruling AKP would sweep to victory - the only question was whether it would win enough seats to send a new constitution to a referendum, or whether it could create a new constitution unilaterally. Many expected that the nationalist MHP would struggle to muster the 10% needed to enter Parliament after a string of sex-tape scandals and defections. And the vigorous efforts of the AKP and the main opposition CHP to court Kurdish voters in the south-east was expected to damage the chances of candidates backed by the mainly Kurdish BDP.

In the event, most predictions were off the mark. The AKP won another major victory, securing 50%, an increase of 4% from 2007. But dueto new constituency boundaries, it fell just short of the 330 seats needed to send a new constitution to a referendum.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Turkish Election - Notes from the Field Part I

Istanbul may be sweltering under an oppressive, muggy heat, but the political climate in the city seems much calmer. A stroll around some of the Old City's central public spaces today revealed a surprising degree of indifference to Sunday's election, despite the vote's importance for the country's future and as a test of confidence in the ruling AK Party.

Down by Galata Bridge, some of the main parties had set up campaign stands in the shadow of the New Mosque. The AKP, the opposition CHP, and the smaller Democratic Left Party (DSP) and Felicity Party (SP) all had campaign stands out.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Turkish Election Round-Up - June 8th

Syria crisis raises questions for Turkish government

The intensifying conflict in Syria is now becoming an issue for Turkey, as hundreds of civilians from northern Syrian towns flee to Turkey to avoid an army crackdown. Harsh reprisals are expected in Jisr al-Shughour, after the Assad regime claimed that 120 soldiers had been killed by ‘armed gangs’ and ordered elite military units towards the town.

Ankara has pledged that it will not “close its doors” to Syrian refugees, and Turkish ambulances are ferrying wounded civilians across the borders. However Prime Miniser Erdoğan has been uncharacteristically restrained: at a press conference he said that "We wish Syria to be more tolerant to civilians and (further) the reform steps [Assad] has already taken, as soon as possible in a more convincing way." 

Turkish Election Round-Up – June 7th

With just a few days to go before the general election on June 12, Turkish politics is heating up. The tone on all sides is getting increasingly vitriolic. Conspiracies and ungrounded accusations are rife. Prime Minister Erdoğan, in particular, is in a pugnacious mood. 

With so many new developments, and so many bold statements coming from the main parties, I’ll be providing an election round-up for the next few days of some key issues and interesting side stories. I will also be in Istanbul from Thursday to get a close-up view of events.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Erdoğan blasts OSCE Minsk Group

The OSCE Minsk Group, tasked with settling the unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, is used to criticism. In almost two decades it has not even managed to persuade the two sides to withdraw their snipers from the front lines, let alone forge a comprehensive political settlement. An upcoming meeting in Kazan in mid-June between the Armenian and Azerbaijani Presidents is not expected to yield any breakthroughs. 

But even weary OSCE diplomats were probably stung by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s comments to an Azerbaijani TV station on Sunday. Declaring that the Minsk Group was “useless”, the Turkish premier asked, “I wonder what the MG can do today, if it has failed during the past 20 years?” Unless Yerevan and Baku settle their own differences, he added, the conflict could not be settled.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

US energy envoy weighs into the Nabucco debate

Richard Morningstar, US Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, has been fairly quiet recently. Given his vocal and influential lobbying for the BTC oil pipeline from the Caspian in the 1990s, this is surprising. Once again, the region has an opportunity to free itself from Russia's energy stranglehold through an ambitious and politically complex pipeline - yet Ambassador Morningstar's lobbying on behalf of Nabucco has been lackluster, in public at least.
So, just when the project appears to be on its last legs, Nabucco supporters were no doubt cheered by Ambassador Morningstar's supportive statements on Friday. Speaking before a House of Representatives subcommittee, he said that the US "strongly supports the establishment of ... the so-called Southern Corridor, to bring natural gas to Europe, via Turkey, from the Caspian and potentially other sources beyond Europe's southeastern frontiers", highlighting Nabucco. Providing gas to parts of Europe that need in most is "in line with U.S policy goals", he added, as it diversifies European supplies away from Russia.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Ahmadinejad in Armenia - diplomatic obligation or political manoeuvre?

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has been under a bit of strain recently. A power struggle with the Supreme Leader and the judiciary, in the course of which he has appointed himself caretaker in charge of the Oil Ministry despite heavy criticism, has left him isolated and under fire from conservatives. So why not get away from it all by visiting one of the few neighbouring states where you will be welcomed?

Of course, President Ahmadinejad's scheduled trip to Armenia on June 6 is hardly a holiday - presidential trips are planned more rigorously than a weekend jaunt, particularly as it is the Iranian leader's first time in Armenia since 2007. But it is undoubtedly a welcome distraction from his problems at home - and it may be an opportunity for him to solve some of those problems.