Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkish Neo-imperialism: Erdogan’s provoking foreign policy by Lucien Enev.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region – the source of a near thirty-year long tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan – may well be Turkish President Erdogan’s newest opportunity to assert his importance international stage and independence from other countries’ diktats.
Although Turkey publicly denies any implication in the rekindled conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the secessionist and ethnically mainly Armenian region, there is undeniable evidence of Turkey’s military assistance to Baku. But why get militarily involved in a conflict which needless to say induces high expenses, especially in a time of particular strain on the Turkish economy – heavily dependent on imports and foreign investment which significantly decreased with the covid-19 pandemic? The answer lies in a seemingly favourable international conjuncture which allows Erdogan to pursue his neo-imperialistic project of influence-building in regions formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, a project which paradoxically – despite the implicated expenses – draws attention away from the soaring economic crisis by fitting in nationalistic rhetoric which appeals to many Turks. As some have suggested, Turkey’s intervention alongside Azerbaijan is less motivated by brotherhood towards the ethnically Turkic Azeris – as some have suggested– than by political scheming.
As mentioned earlier, the occasion might not represent itself for Erdogan. The world is falling into a global recession, and countries appear more concerned with sanitary and economic dangers from within than with dangers from without. What is more, the Americans – who generally keep their Turkish ally (Turkey being a member of the NATO- the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) under control – are focused on their presidential election and seem not to care about distant skirmishes in the South Caucasus.
However, two leaders denounced Ankara’s meddling in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: France’s Emmanuel Macron and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Macron said in a press conference on October 2nd that “a red line has been crossed”, and called upon the other NATO members to “face the truth about a NATO member’s behaviour”. There has been much tension between Macron and Erdogan the past few months, as France and Turkey have taken opposing stances on various matters, namely in the Libyan Civil War, and most recently this summer during the exploration of legally-Greek waters by Turkish ships, in search for gas deposits to exploit. The situation escalated when France showed its support to Greece and made it tangible by deploying its navy in the Mediterranean to reinforce the Greek military. The matter was temporarily settled only due to the intervention of German diplomacy, which has always adopted a conciliatory position concerning Erdogan, and which disapproved of the French show of force.
Emmanuel Macron’s effort to subvert Erdogan’s foreign policy, therefore, seems thwarted by an uncoordinated European diplomatic response, and particularly by Angela Merkel’s fear that Turkey might release the hundreds of migrants massed at Europe’s gates, if not dealt with carefully; with Erdogan, Merkel “speaks softly”, but hardly ever “carries a big stick”. Furthermore, Macron’s area of action against Erdogan is limited, as both Turkey and France are NATO members. Turkey’s President knows that, and all sorts of provocation – both formally diplomatic and verbal – have almost become customary between the two men. Therefore, Turkey’s intervention in the Nagorno-Karabakh region partly serves as a reminder to the French President – who prudently and tacitly appears to support Armenia – that there is little he can do against Erdogan’s plans.
However, what stands as a novelty in Turkey’s siding with Azerbaijan is that Erdogan is quite direct opposition to Vladimir Putin, as both Azerbaijan and Armenia are former republics of the USSR. Therefore Russia still exerts great influence over the region. What is more, Russia possesses a military base in Gyumri, Armenia, and has been known to moderate Baku and Yerevan's tensions for years. Erdogan’s foreign policy in the region seems all the more surprising as Putin has been one his few strong allies – or rather ally-enemy, as Turkey and Russia (and France, for that matter) rival the Libyan Civil War.
Russia has also aided Turkey with the development of industrial nuclear technology – and some international observers fear that Russia might be helping Turkey with a military nuclear program, although it seems rather unlikely – and has sold Turkey its S-400 missile system in December 2019, which was an unprecedented arms sale to a NATO member underlining the two countries’ rapprochement. Why, then, would Erdogan risk his already weakening and circumstantial alliance with the Russian titan, especially given Putin’s much stronger diplomatic lever compared to Macron? One could simply blame it on Erdogan’s neo imperialistic fever which leads him to see himself as the sultan of a reborn Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s intervention in Libya, the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and the building up of tension with the historic “Greek enemy” are all appeals to Turkey’s imperial past. Erdogan behaves boldly, like any emperor would, hoping that grand gestures will save him from popular discontent.
But Erdogan needs to play wisely; popular discontent might be in check for now, but it is unsure for how long, and many Turks still hold dear Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Republic. Although growing in power, Turkey is still an average-sized power, and a dwarf compared to Russia. All in all, Russia still seems to hold diplomatic supremacy in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It managed to negotiate a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Moscow which came into effect on October 10th. But as both parties appear to have resumed combat despite it, it is uncertain what role Turkey will have to play in the region.