Dr. Mitat Çelikpala is Associate Professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University, İstanbul. He was born in Ankara on 19 October 1969. He graduated from Middle East Technical University Dep. of Political Science and Public Administration. He received his MA and PhD on International Relations from Bilkent University. His areas of expertise are the Caucasus, North Caucasian Diaspora, people and security in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions and Turkish-Russian relations. In addition to Kadir Has University, he is lecturing in Turkish War College and Turkish National Security Academy on Turkish foreign policy, politics, history and security in the Caucasus and Central Asia and Turkish political structure and life. Dr. Celikpala is serving as Academic Adviser to NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defense against Terrorism (DATR) and National Security Academy. He is the board member of Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Strategic Research Centre and Turkish Armed Forces Strategic Research Centre. He has several numbers of published academic articles and media coverage and analyses on above mentioned areas.
Caucasus Times.: In August, 2008 when the Russo-Georgian war had shaken the world the prime-minister of Turkey Recep Erdogan proposed the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP). Since those times many experts both in Russia and in the West began discussing “the Turkish geopolitical recurrence” in the Caucasus in particular and in Eurasia as whole. What do you think about this thesis? Is it kind of analytical oversimplification or no?
M.C.: I think “the Turkish geopolitical recurrence” is a rhetoric and he idea that establishing Turkish visibility via CSCP is exactly analytical oversimplification. Turkish decision makers proposed CSCP as a first reaction to the atmosphere of uncertainty and chaos that was generated by war. The proposal aimed at ending the war promptly and finding solutions to the issues on the regional level. Through this proposal Turkey might attempt to constitute a “Caucasian Alliance” similar to the model in the Balkans. CSCP proposal have become official during Prime Minister Erdogan’s Moscow and Tbilisi visits that he made on August 13-14, almost a week after the beginning of war. The fundamental purpose of CSCP is contributing to the establishment of peace and stability in the region through dialogue. In this context, it aims to remove the tension with war-like tendencies among these countries by means of a settlement that puts economic and commercial relations to the center. Although CSCP proposal has officially been delivered to all of these countries, no institutionalization was achieved until spring 2010. It seems that the biggest problem haunting the search for cooperation in the Caucasus is the lack of sufficient social, political and economic institutions in the Caucasian republics. An atmosphere of distrust still prevails among Caucasian countries.
During the meetings held through the Turkish initiative, the parties declared commitment to common efforts and cooperation for solving the disagreements in the region; however, the negative atmosphere created by bilateral problems prevented the formation of the CSCP. The idea for the formation of a regional platform had come up due to the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of extra-regional solution suggestions; however countries like Georgia stood aloof to the proposal due to the importance they attached to the role of non-regional political actors such as the US and the EU. On the other hand, the suggestion to institutionalize CSCP according to the principles of OSCE meant the exclusion of regional actors such as Iran from the process and put parties of the issues like Abkhazia and South Ossetia into an ambiguous position.
Moreover, Turkey’s CSCP proposal caused suspicion, even a reaction, among Western allies, with US being in the first place. The reason for this reaction rested in the suspicion that Turkey might be taking steps independent of its allies, while the allies in the West were trying to build a common stance against the RF within the framework of the EU and NATO. It should be noted that the suspicious outlook at the initial stages of the proposal were fundamentally caused by the exclusion possibilities due to the stress on regionality and the unease generated by the fact that the first negotiations were carried out with Moscow.
Why Turkey acted in this line? Turkey was directly affected by these developments. In the first stage, Turkey’s economy and her commercial ties were damaged. Following this, the new strategic condition started to be debated along with its political impacts. Turkey’s attempts to develop relations with Azerbaijan and her presence in Central Asia were paralyzed, and a set of serious infrastructure investments were required to reach the pre-war position. In this framework, cooperation with Russia, territorial integrity of Georgia, attitudes toward Abkhazia, relations with Azerbaijan, trajectory of Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and Turkish-Armenian relations were brought up in the agenda as topics needed to be readdressed. Besides, it has been observed that the rupture of Georgian-Russian relations and the uncompromising situation that two parties came up with after the war had the potential to destroy Turkey’s Black Sea centered policies, regional security initiatives like BLACKSEAFOR and Operation Black Sea Harmony, and economic and politic projects such as BTC/BTE pipelines and BTK railway line. Furthermore, in the context of global rivalry and transportation of Western aid to Georgia, even the Montreux convention itself and the conditions it demands for the Straits and the Black Sea have become contentious. Due to these developments Turkish decision makers felt that they have to take quick steps which deeply influenced her traditional and already established Caucasian policy that was established approximately in the last 15 years. In sum the CSCP is a decision to restore status quo in the Caucasus as soon as possible.
Caucasus Times.: The Turkish-Russian economic and political ties have greatly expanded over the recent years. The 2 powers opposing each other in the historical past have found more and more shared interests. This tendency has provoked lots of fears in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan though those suspicions have different prerequisites and particular manifestations. Is it serious to discuss the “great geopolitical bargain” between Moscow and Ankara?
M.C.: I don’t think so. Turkey is not an actor in the Caucasus yet to bargain for shaping the Caucasus together with Russia. Both parties have some common interests and agendas but Turkey exists in the Caucasus mainly economically. Turkey, politically and strategically squeezed in between the West and Russia in the regional rivalry. If we discuss any great geopolitical bargain between the parties in the Caucasus, we have to consider Turkey as a Western actor or part of the West ot an independent actor to bargain with Russia. Turkish decision makers can or have to bargain with traditional western actors first and then Russia. Turkish foreign policy makers perceive Turkey as the unique Western actor who has balanced relations with RF and is able to determine a vision for the countries of the region. It is also believed that the economic and commercial power of Turkey would accelerate and enhance this process. In addition to the extent and depth of the disputes among regional countries, the nature of the problems and the influence of international actors prevent the solutions to be produced locally. When the process that began after August 2008 is considered, the current situation indicates that Azerbaijan keeps its prominent position for Turkey. The normalization process which was jointly initiated with Armenia aimed at convincing Armenia to conciliate on the solution of regional issues and urge the diaspora to ease the pressure on Turkey. However, current situation also shows that this policy does not contribute to the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh issue and the prevention of initiatives on “genocide bills.” On the other hand, at least when public debates are considered, Turkey’s attitude disturbs Azerbaijan and thereby causes tension between these two countries. While the relations with Armenia haven’t brought successful outcomes, the relations with Azerbaijan have also resulted in a set of troubles. During this process, relations with Georgia remained in the background, though Georgia has a central place in Caucasian politics. Georgia, without doubt, keeps her central position in Turkey’s Caucasian policy. However, the impression that Turkish diplomacy has given weight to the normalization with Armenia after August 2008, created the perception that Georgia is pushed into the background. It is also evident that Turkey, with respect to the solution of Abkhazia and South Ossetia issues, did not adopt an attitude that is essentially different from the previous periods. This situation occasionally causes troubles with Tbilisi and Abkhazia as well. In this respect, incidents such as the seizure of Turkish ships on their way to Abkhazia and the arrest of the crew and the avoidance of Meskhetian Turks (Ahiska Turks) issue draw attention.
Caucasus Times.: This question is logical continuation of the previous one. What the most important similarities and differences are there in the Russian and Turkish approaches in the Caucasus region?
M.C.: The most important similarity is that: both Turkey and Russia wants to keep status quo in the region. The main difference is hidden within this argument. Turkey wants to establish predominance slowly and without creating new clashes. At the end of the process Turkey wants to see the regional countries within the Western camp under Turkish leadership. Russia, on the other hand, wants keep its predominance in the region without facing with any dominant rival. I believe that, Turkey is an acceptable actor/partner for Russia. Russian decision makers can easily see that Turkey has some serious problems with its western partners, namely the US and the EU during the last decade and they know that it is a tradional Turkish foreign policy behavior to employ Russia in order to bargain with the West.
Caucasus Times.: The Turkish government officially supports territorial integrity of all the Caucasus neighbors of this country. But at the same time numerous business cultural and political ties between Abkhazia and Turkey are well-known. How could you explain this contradiction?
M.C.: It is not a contradiction in fact. This is one of the end results of historical developments. All the Turkish governments running for votes and Diaspora groups are very organized and influential in domestic politics. All those ties are very humanly and did not create any political/geopolitical change in the region. Additionally trade and economy are the main pillars of Turkey in regional politics. On the other hand, when international politics and status quo concerns, Turkish decion makers are so traditional. They refused any change of borders, supports territorial integrity and eager to take any step to change existing balance. For the decision makers this attitude do not contains any contradiction but in contrast very pragmatic, rational and humanely. I can add that, Turkish decision-makers are very realistic that they are very aware of the fact that they do not want to be part of global rivalry. It is beyond Turkey’s capacity to face with any radical changes in the Caucasus.
Caucasus Times.: Now we are witnesses of the Circassian ethno-nationalism reviving in the North Caucasus. Historically this ethnic group had the close ties with your country. How do you evaluate the Circassian factor in current Turkey? And what role could Ankara play in this process?
M.C.: I have to say that Circassian population in Turkey is much higher than the Circassian population in the North Caucasus. Since the collapse of the Caucasus this population closely follows all those developments in the Caucasus not only in the North but also in the South Caucasus. Nationalistic aspect is getting stronger day by day in Turkey. But this revival is little bit different than the revival in the homeland. You know diaspora identity is something different than homeland identity. Circassiaqn groups more politicized in last decade and they want Turkey to be more active actor in the region when the Circassia issues concerned. Turkey considers North Caucasian or Circassian issues within the political domain of Russia. Except some short time periods, Turkey goes to North Caucasus via Moscow. It is still the only way but I may foretell that Turkey has to develop a new and comprehensive North Caucasian policy. The issues of Abkhazia/South Ossetia, Circassian genocide, ethnic and religious revival and terror are the issues that have potential to effect Turkish-Russian relations and Turkish domestic politics. Ankara can be constructive factor via Circassian diaspora to stabilize the region and can cooperate with Russia to employ diaspora in order to construct more peaceful and stable North Caucasus. Russia has to accept Turkey as a partner in this region not a threat or rival.
Caucasus Times.: Last but no least question for our interview. Now the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process survives crisis. The basic reasons of it are more or less understandable. What factors (maybe concrete decisions, political statements or agreements) would encourage new dynamics to it?
M.C.: At that moment I do not see any possibility to encourage parties to restart the process except any steps taken in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Prime Minister Erdoğan tied up himself very strongly in this issue and Turkish decision makers put all the blame on Armenian side. All the developments of last year are also pushes Erdoğan to stay indifferently. Azerbaijan’s position is very important. Thus, without having any positive change that satisfies Azerbaijan it is not realistic to have any change in Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.