Saturday, 30 July 2011

Turkish generals resign - confrontation or surrender?

Turkey's whole top brass has resigned en masse, just days before a crucial high-level meeting to confirm promotions and resignations. The story is still unfolding so I won't give an in-depth analysis until the dust has cleared, particularly when we see how the AKP government responds.

Strictly speaking the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as the Chief of the General Staff Işık Koşaner have not resigned so much as sought early retirement, but the overall message is the same. 

Monday, 25 July 2011

Caspian Energy Update

A few interesting recent developments in the Caspian energy field from last week.

Firstly, the dispute between Turkey and Azerbaijan over an agreement for the Nabucco pipeline continues. Officials at Azerbaijan's state energy firm SOCAR have complained that they have yet to receive a copy of the Product Support Agreement, signed on June 8 in Turkey by the Nabucco project partners and the Turkish government. Azerbaijani representatives declined to attend the signing ceremony - apparently because Baku was unwilling to give its full approval to Nabucco whilst various legal, political and commercial issues are outstanding. 

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Azerbaijan's hunger for military hardware

Baku's military build-up continued apace in 2010, according to recent figures from the UN Register on Conventional Arms

Azerbaijan imported a fair number of armoured vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, and small arms throughout 2010 (as well as a single helicopter from Ukraine and a single Su-25 fighter jet from Belarus). The information available seems to be patchy: according to Azeri media, the data is collected only from the countries which submitted their information to the Register. So no word yet on which other suppliers Baku has been buying from. However, the excellent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has more detailed figures from 2010 drawn from a range of sources, which paints a better picture of the volume of Azeri arms imports. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Turkey's silence over Hezbollah's 'Istanbul bombing'

A rather dramatic security story from Turkey: the leading Italian daily  Corriere della Sera has reported that, acording to US sources, the bomb which injured eight civilians in Istanbul on May 26 was not the work of the Kurdish militant group the PKK, as believed. Instead, it was a botched assassination attempt against the Israeli Consul in Istanbul, carried out by the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah on the orders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

The alleged attack was in revenge for the May 2010 assassination of Masoud Alimohammadi, an Iranian nuclear physicist, in Tehran. That attack was blamed on Israel's spy service Mossad. The Istanbul bomb attack was planned as retaliation by the elite Revolutionary Guards, who monitored Moshe Kahmi's movements before contracting the attack out to members of Hezbollah.

This all sounds rather like a deliberately complicated spy novel, but given the globe-spanning proxy war between Israel and Iran it isn't impossible. What is significant is the silence of the Turkish government. Reports suggest that Turkish intelligence soon realised that Hezbollah was behind the attack and backtracked on their initial assumption that the PKK was responsible. And yet no public accusations have been made against either Hezbollah or Iran.

Although Ankara probably made its complaints in private, the absence of public allegations against Tehran is striking, given that a number of innocent Turkish citizens were almost killed. Consider the reverse scenario: that Israel attempted to knock off an Iranian diplomat with a bicycle bomb in a busy Istanbul street. Turkish-Israeli relations would hit rock bottom, and make the current bilateral relationship look like a cordial embrace.

Turkish-Iranian relations are indeed a sensitive issue. Turkey prizes the access which its economic clout, geopolitical influence and Islamic credentials grant it in Tehran; more bluntly, it is also increasingly dependent on Iranian gas. Avoiding even a perceived confrontation with Iran is a pillar of Turkey's Middle Eastern policy. Similarly Hezbollah's impeccable revolutionary and populist credentials chime well with Prime Minister Erdoğan's independent, assertive and, arguably, 'anti-Western' style of politics.

This doesn't mean approval or complicity within the Turkish government. Nor to suggest that stylistic affinities with Hezbollah define Turkey's approach to terrorist bombings., for example However it does show that when it comes to dealing with its awkward eastern neighbour, and when it comes to preserving its carefully cultivated image in the 'Arab street', Ankara seems to believe that discretion is the better part of valour.

Is Azerbaijan trying to change the Karabakh mediators?

Following up on an earlier post I wrote on the shifting dynamics of the Karabakh mediating process, comes an interesting comment from Azerbaijan's Deputy Foreign Minister (via Hurriyet):

“We observe the leading position of Russia in the Minsk Group [of the OSCE, tasked with mediating the negotiations] when the U.S. and France, the other partners of the trio, stay behind. The last nine meetings being led by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is a result of this development,” Azimov said. “We would like to see the U.S. and France become more active to create a balance.”
In addition Azimov criticised the absence of Turkey and - interestingly - Germany from the Minsk Group. The lack of a formal Turkish presence has long been a point of complaint for Azeri diplomats, which views the three co-chairs as too pro-Armenian for either geopolitical or domestic political reasons. That said, Ankara has exercised plenty of informal leverage over the years. 

Germany is an unexpected choice. Azerbaijan probably calculates that another major European power is needed, and that Germany's large Turkish diaspora would place it in the pro-Baku camp, as a counterweight to France, which is perceived to be pro-Yerevan due to its vocal Armenian diaspora.

The Deputy Foreign Minister also complained about the lack of a coherent NATO or EU strategy for the region, which has been a perennial issue - and one which is unlikely to change if the current process, dominated by the OSCE and driven by Russia, continues.

However calling for Turkey and Germany to be brought on board, encouraging NATO and the EU, and pushing for a more active role by the US and France, suggests that Baku is striving to alter the parameters of the existing peacemaking format. In particular it implies that Azerbaijan believes that the current arrangement is being overly influenced by Russia, which sent both Azerbaijan and Armenia a revised (and so far under wraps) peacemaking framework earlier this month. 

Grist to the mill is Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov's proposal to start drafting a peace agreement now, even before the existing disputes on the peace blueprint are settled. This will reinforce suspicions that Baku is seeking to circumvent the current process, avoiding excess pressure from Moscow which damages Azerbaijan's national interests. Which raises the question - just what has Russia been pushing  Baku to do?

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Turkmenistan dispute underlines limits of Turkish economic lobbying

A group of Turkish companies are preparing to seek legal action against Turkmenistan in a bid to recover what they say is more than $1 billion in unpaid bills for construction work in the Central Asian country, the group's spokesman said Wednesday.
The legal claim indicates that a low-key visit by Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Turkmenistan in May, intended to settle the matter, was unsuccessful. Subsequent talks between representatives of the Turkish companies and officials from the opaque Central Asian state achieved nothing: the Turkmen government "did not understand the seriousness of the situation".

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Interpreting the Diplomatic Chatter on Karabakh

In advance of the Kazan summit in late June, when Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian met to discuss the deadlocked Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, there were rumblings among international mediators that this was the last chance. If the two sides failed to make headway on the current blueprint (the Basic Principles), the OSCE’s Minsk Group warned, they would go back to the drawing board and produce a new plan.

This announcement may have encouraged intransigence in Kazan, as both sides held out in the hope of getting a more beneficial blueprint – what Tom De Waal has referred to as ‘forum shopping’ – but more critically it put the OSCE mediators in a corner. They now have to follow through on their warning, and adjust or abandon the Basic Principles, or risk losing even more credibility in the eyes of cynical and wary officials in Baku and Yerevan.

Recent days have seen a lot of diplomatic chatter on the issue. On July 8th the Russian Foreign Ministry handed over its own proposal on the conflict to Baku and Yerevan. To date no details have emerged whilst the two sides study the proposal. According to the Russian daily Izvestia, the ‘interim status’ for Karabakh during the settlement process was the stumbling block during Kazan, so the new Russian proposal may seek to address this without overhauling the Basic Principles entirely.

There seems to be a slight thawing of the two sides’ positions since the Russian proposal was delivered, notably Azerbaijan. On July 13 senior official Ali Hasanov told an Azerbaijani newspaper that the OSCE-backed principles for peace “should not be viewed as aimed at providing an unambiguous victory to Azerbaijan or Armenia in the issue” and that mutual concessions were inevitable.

On the same day, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov seemed positive, saying that Baku and Yerevan should “continue negotiations with no hysterics and work on rapprochement of positions.” However, he also insisted that the Basic Principles should be used and that progress should continue “without waiting for the next phase of negotiations on basic principles”. This suggests that Azerbaijan, at least, is happy with them as they are. President Aliyev echoed this, insisting that the original Basic Principles drawn up in 2009 were acceptable, although the unspecified ‘new’ version is not.

Whilst the details and the effects of Moscow’s new proposal are unclear, other parties have been drawn into the peace-making arena. Firstly, high-level US officials have been undertaking one of their perennial rounds of telephone diplomacy. This is welcome acknowledgement of the problem for Azerbaijani and Armenian officials, but is never sustained or forceful enough to change the situation.

Secondly, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly may not be the most heavyweight organisation, but it has been taking a greater interest since Kazan under a new Special Representative, Joao Soares. On July 10 the PA adopted a resolution deploring growing tensions in Karabakh, and the Azerbaijani representative has been lobbying for greater involvement by the OSCE PA. This is probably just the usual empty statements, but it probably reflects growing frustration with the Minsk Group.

Finally the EU, long content to leave Karabakh to Russia and the OSCE, has also stepped up its calls for peace. Speaking on July 6 the EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton declared that the EU is “ready and committed to step up its efforts in support of the work of the Minsk Group Co-Chairs.” An EU official reiterated the message some days later, revealing that Brussels was talking to the OSCE about concrete ways to get involved and play a more active role.

And of course the Karabakh mediation underdog, Iran, has also weighed in, with a speech by Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani on July 2. Like an enthusiastic but not particularly welcome neighbour, Tehran regularly calls for a peaceful settlement, offering its own assistance and warning darkly of ‘distant powers interfering’. This is rather undercut by a recent Wikileaks cable (I can only find it through third-party sources) in which Armenian officials bluntly stated that Tehran does not really want a resolution of the conflict.

So does any of this mean a sea change in the mediation format? Probably not for now, but it suggests that the standard approach - occasional meetings coordinated by the Minsk Group, repetition of the same blueprint – is losing its appeal.

A more nuanced approach may be in the works, with unilateral Russian mediation (which has always been a feature) supplemented by greater EU assistance and some additional ‘soft power’ influence from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A revised or adjusted settlement blueprint might also be forthcoming, although getting both Baku and Yerevan to agree on a new formula will be a Herculean task.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

China and Azerbaijan – a new player in town?

For most states in Eurasia, it is a regular routine to express satisfaction with one’s bilateral relationships, welcoming the development of ties and expressing satisfaction that the partnership will only deepen in the future. Azerbaijan and China may not have a lot in common at first glance, but parsing their recent ties does suggest that we are seeing the development of China’s profile to the west of the Caspian.

Trade between the two has just hit $1 billion, according to Azerbaijan’s media. This may be chicken feed for China (in perspective, China’s trade with the US is $385 billion) but it is significant for Azerbaijan, with a total trade turnover in 2010 of $27 billion.

A full third of the trade is between Azerbaijan and Xinjiang in China’s west, heavily populated by Uighur Muslims (the news of the trade milestone came at the inaugural meeting of the Azerbaijan-Xinjiang intergovernmental commission on economic affairs). 

Vague ethnic links aside, most of the basis for trade probably comes from the energy sector. Azerbaijan’s oil and gas sector remains its biggest economic strength, and Xinjiang is western China’s energy hub – particularly for gas and oil coming from the Caspian region.

Recent discussion of free-trade zones does suggest that the two sides are trying to diversify their relations, although whether these will be implemented and how much economic impact they will have is debatable.

More broadly, the rise in trade reflects two things. Firstly, Beijing’s determination to increase investment in Xinjiang, which remains poorer and less developed than many other parts of China. Poverty and economic disenfranchisement were cited as key reasons behind riots among Xinjiang’s Uighur community back in 2009. Encouraging investment from majority-Muslim states may seem like a simple and efficient part of the solution to the Xinjiang issue.

Secondly, it reflects growing Chinese interest on the ‘far side’ of the Caspian, with all the energy, political and security ramifications that implies. This isn’t a novelty – China’s first stumble was back in 1999 when it sold multiple-launch rockets to Azerbaijan’s arch-rival Armenia, provoking anger in Baku. Although Beijing has avoided any subsequent such errors, it has certainly been building ties with Yerevan too. In 2009 it became Armenia’s second-largest trade partner and President Hu Jintao praised Armenia as a “trustworthy friend” during a meeting in May 2010.

As China’s profile in the Caucasus increases, building strong relationships with both Azerbaijan and Armenia will increasingly be a balancing act. In an echo of the 1999 incident, Baku has been pushing to acquire long-range Chinese missiles. This could create a diplomatic spat with Armenia. 

And although China certainly prioritises Azerbaijan out of the two, for its location and its energy resources, Chinese policy in distant areas is usually based on careful balance and non-interference. Indeed, its official policy on Nagorno-Karabakh has been studiously neutral: calling for support of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, but abstaining from a 2008 UN vote tabled by Azerbaijan which called for an immediate Armenian withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani territories.

This is without mentioning the other geopolitical dynamics that would change if China began to assert itself on the western side of the Caspian – with Iran, Turkey, and particularly Russia. Reaching $1 billion in trade turnover with Azerbaijan isn’t a sign that ‘the Chinese are coming’, but it does indicate the shape of things to come. As time passes, China will increasingly become an alternative pole for Azerbaijan’s ‘multi-vector foreign policy’ to take account of.