Wednesday, 25 January 2012

France, Turkey, and the Caucasus

The French Senate’s decision to ratify a bill criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide has already provoked a stinging response from Turkey. ‘Permanent sanctions’ are now on the cards, and in a capital display of petty politics, the mayor of Ankara has proposed renaming Paris Street, where the French embassy is located, to ‘Algeria Street’.

The expected freezing of ties between Paris and Ankara will have major ramifications for Turkey-EU ties and for the situation in the Middle East. It will also be another nail in the coffin of the Turkey-Armenia thaw, since neither government will now feel in the mood to compromise on the ‘historical dimension’ which was one of the protocols restoring diplomatic ties. That said, the eulogies for the rapprochement were read a long time ago so this shouldn’t be overstated.

Of more importance is the potential impact elsewhere in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan has spoken out strongly against the French Senate vote, with the secretary of the ruling party calling it “absurd and irresponsible” and the Foreign Ministry strongly condemning it.

So far, so predictable. Baku is unlikely to follow suit and cut ties – France was Azerbaijan’s second-biggest trade partner in 2010, according to official figures; President Aliyev is instinctively cautious and shows no inclination to cut off his nose to spite his face, unlike Erdoğan. There is undoubtedly popular anger in Azerbaijan about the bill, which is seen as a strike against Azeris as well as Turks, but the government is under no obligation to indulge it all the way.

But France’s role as one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, tasked with mediating a solution to the Karabakh conflict, may be seriously undermined. There was already talk late last year of replacing France with a representative from the European Union, which would help to coordinate and clarify Brussels’s vague and often listless diplomacy towards the Caucasus. Paris has been, at best, a minor player in the Minsk Group, overshadowed by Moscow and Washington, so switching to an EU representative would give a bit more clout.

As I noted in my year-end prediction for Azerbaijan, this could give a bit more impetus to peacemaking efforts, so it could actually be a blessing in disguise if it came off. But bureaucratic resistance to switching the Minsk Group format is strong, both within the OSCE and the EU: there is no guarantee that France will bow out.

If Paris remains one of the mediators, then expect the Karabakh peace process to stall (even more) whilst Baku tries to push it out. Azerbaijan will simply refuse to accept the intervention of a mediator which it views as intrinsically biased against its own interests. The government has not, at the time of writing, formally demanded that France be removed as a mediator, but the number of high-level officials already saying it suggests that it is already official policy.

This April will be another flashpoint. April 24th is the date on which the US Presidents inevitably gives a speech commemorating the Armenian genocide, prompting the Turkish lobby to demand that he not use the ‘g-word’ and the Armenian lobby to insist that he does. This game has always come out in the Turks’ favour, despite candidate Obama’s insistence that he would label it ‘genocide’ during his election campaign.

This year tempers on both sides will be running high with memories of the French vote still fresh and, for Armenia, a parliamentary election occurring just two weeks later. Maximalist positions will be taken and the lobbies in DC will go into overdrive. Expect Obama to strike a balance, as he has done previously, by using the Armenian term ‘Meds Yeghern’, the Armenian term, which roughly translates as Great Tragedy.

A related development is likely to be the intensification of Azerbaijani lobbying efforts overseas, particularly in the US. Azerbaijan is conscious of the fact that its own PR efforts have lagged behind Armenia’s well-disciplined and powerfully financed diaspora networks. With Baku becoming more self-assured on the world stage, and with these kinds of issues likely to crop up again in future, the government and semi-official groups will intensify efforts to develop effective lobbying groups on Capitol Hill. The recent formation of the Azerbaijan America Alliance is a step towards this.

Hardening Turkish attitudes towards the Armenian stance may also lead to greater coordination between Azeri and Turkish lobby groups and, at least for a time, a strengthening of the old fraternal idea of “one nation, two states”. This has taken a bit of a battering recently, but fresh antipathy towards Armenia might revive it. 

This aside, no relationships will be improved and no wounds healed as a result of this vote. It will drive the parties even further apart, and it will make resolving the South Caucasus's tangled problems even more taxing.


  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I have two comments though. While it is true that Azerbaijan is frustrated with this bill and there are these moods to oust France out of the Minsk Group, Baku doesn't have much room for maneuvering around this. First, as you rightly noted it, there is this general principle to stick to the current format. More importantly, let's not forget that Turkey is also a Minsk Group member. Though it is not a co-chair and hence officially has no power over the resolution process, Turkey is in fact influencing the whole resolution process more than any of the co-chairs by keeping its border with Armenia closed. This policy which clearly favours Azerbaijan, is one of the main reasons why the resolution process is stuck in nowhere, as Azerbaijan feels empowered with the Turkish support and solidarity [apart from its oil revenues and military buildup] and doesn't want to make ANY concessions to Armenia. What I mean is that Azerbaijan can't afford throwing stones at others as it itself lives in a glass house. And this is especially true after what Azerbaijan actually spoiled Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.

    On another note, the claim that the French bill won't help Turks and Armenians and will only further escalate the animosity between them as well as between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not that correct. In fact in Armenia it is perceived as another form of blackmailing. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is stuck not because of this bill, neither is the Karabakh peace process stuck because of it. This is only one little element that appeared only now, but the sides have showed their maximalist stances and unwillingness to compromise long time ago. I would even say that on the contrary, the French bill might force Ankara to revive its dialogue with Yerevan out of fear that the genocide discourse might have a spillover effect.

    1. Ani,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m afraid I don’t really get your first point: are you saying that Baku cannot force Paris out of the MG because this would affect Turkey’s own influence over the process? I don’t see how this would happen. If you mean that kicking France out of the MG would have no effect (either good or bad) on the Karabakh process because of Turkey’s blockade, then yes, I agree up to a point – but the Minsk Group is still the main format of negotiations and it, not Ankara, came up with the Basic Principles. So any changes in the MG’s composition will, at least in theory, affect the parameters and the pace of the Karabakh process.

      Secondly, in what way is the French vote seen as blackmail in Armenia? Of France blackmailing Armenia – if so, how, and why?

      I agree with you that the rapprochement and Karabakh are not stuck simply because of this bill: however, I don’t think it will help. I think the AKP in Turkey (or Erdogan, at any rate) genuinely feels so angry about this issue that they will not want to spend any more political capital on negotiating with Armenia. To do so would inevitably stray into the ‘historical dimension’ and neither Turkish nor Armenian politicians seem to have much willingness to depart from maximalist positions on that, as you yourself note.