While relations between Turkey and Russia continue to be strained after Turkey downed a Russian aircraft that violated Turkish airspace, Armenia last week declared the end of its cease-fire agreement with Azerbaijan, raising concerns about a regional war. Daily Sabah spoke with Professor Dr. Oktay Tanrısever, an expert on Russia and Central Asian countries.
Daily Sabah's Ali Ünal (R) speaks with Oktay Tanrısever.
He said that Russian President Vladimir Putin uses the tension with Turkey for his own domestic politics, and that the tensions will decline after the presidential elections in Russia, which are to be held in March. Tanrısever claimed that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan will not escalate into a war and that last week's developments should be considered as part of Russia's effort to gain more influence over Azerbaijan. Tanrısever added that he is not expecting any revolutions in Central Asian countries like the Arab Spring or the "color revolutions" of former Soviet states, signifying that the restrained conflicts will continue, but not escalate into an all-out war.
DS: How do you perceive future relations between Russia and Turkey? Will the ongoing tensions continue?
Every crisis has various stages. First is shock, second is escalation, third is taking control of the escalation and finally stabilizing the escalation. I believe that we are past the escalation stage. Russia has escalated it as much as it can in many fields. Turkey, on the other hand, tried to meet Russia halfway. Under normal circumstances, the first stage of the crisis is over and, unless something unforeseen happens, I do not expect new tensions to arise. Yet, it should not be expected to be solved right away. I believe that this tension will continue until March, during which the presidential elections will take place. I expect Putin to utilize this tension in order to gain the far-right vote through Russian nationalism.
Russia has made many decisions, but I do not believe it will be able to afford another, as there is a limit in economic terms. There is also tension regarding culture along with suspended political relations; there is not much else to do.
Taking all of this into consideration, I think that this crisis will be resolved in the mid-term, starting from the spring, through rational dialogue. However, a resolution will not ensure relations return to the pre-2014 level. It is apparent that Russia will abandon its policy of close relations with Turkey and return to a harsher mode of relations, brimming with the tensions and regional rivalry that had been Russia's main policy between 1991 and 2002.
DS: Do you think that Russia is acting according to its mid-term and long-term strategies in the current tensions with Turkey?
I do not think so. I believe that Russia is more focused on the presidential elections. The downing of the Russian aircraft caused a substantial loss in reputation for Russia. Russia's response was important, as Putin needs to protect his image and reputation while the elections draw near. This incident looks like it is being utilized by Putin for domestic politics. There are many other aspects, of course, but they are more manageable. Expecting tourism to cease is not realistic.
DS: There were ongoing conflicts on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border for two years. Do you think Armenia's declaration about ending the cease-fire will bring new conflicts or a war? How do you view this situation?
If we look at the losses suffered by both sides during the past months' conflicts we can see that actually there has been no cease-fire. However, it is not right to claim that the nonexistence of a cease-fire means war either. There are some situations in which there is no cease-fire, yet also no war. I think this should be interpreted as Russia trying to gain influence over Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani parliament's statement that it will re-evaluate its relations with the U.S., which I believe is a wrong move, gives the signal that it will become closer to Russia.
It seems as if Russia is trying to distance Azerbaijan from the West, the U.S. and Turkey by using the Armenian issue. However, I expect Azerbaijan to maintain a balance similar to Georgia in its relations.
DS: How will this affect Azerbaijan's relations with Turkey, namely the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) project?
I do not expect any changes at that level. Azerbaijan's energy and foreign policies both require Azerbaijan to maintain its relations with the West, as they have interests in maintaining it. If Azerbaijan gets much closer to Russia, it may mean losing its autonomy and the Azerbaijani public will not accept this. Most Azerbaijanis are inclined more toward the West. However, in order to compensate some issues, they are following a balance of power policy. When they have certain issues with the West, they turn toward Russia and vice versa.
DS: How will these developments affect Georgia, which borders Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and has problematic relations with Russia?
Georgia is currently open to manipulation, which Russia wants, as it faces internal political conflicts. Especially last year with the resignation of some ministers it became apparent that the country is suffering from political instability. However, when you look at the political culture of Georgia, you will see that it is mostly set against Russia. Russia invaded Georgia seven years ago and the suffering of the Georgian people has not been forgotten. Therefore, they will definitely keep their distance. As you know, Georgia has earned the right to travel visa-free to EU countries and this was celebrated as a tremendous development. It indicates that Georgia will continue to be a pro-West and pro-European country. I believe that Georgia will remain consistent in its policies. Domestic politics in Georgia are more about the balance between different interest groups and economics.
DS: There are comments that Russia will dissolve into smaller states, like the Soviet Union, due to low oil and natural gas prices. Do you find these comments realistic?
They are not realistic, because there is a difference in the structure of the Soviet Union and Russian Federation. Both are federal, yet the framework of the Soviet Union was different. Soviet republics had the right to declare independence. A group of countries led by Russia declared their independence and the union was, therefore, dissolved. The Russian provinces of today cannot do the same thing. Also, the non-Russian regions do not constitute a majority. I do not believe these rumors are realistic, as the Soviet Union was an ideological state and its relations with the rest of the world were established in a very specific way.
DS: Do you expect a public revolt in Central Asian countries, similar to the color revolutions and Arab Spring?
I do not. These perspectives are not realistic. The leaderships in these countries are very strong and the leaders are flexible and pragmatic in resolving issues. The only problem is the dropping energy prices, and Russia is affected by this as well. In the long run, there may be a public reaction due to economic factors, but we have seen that there were instabilities in Arab countries as a result of public revolts. These are perceived negatively by the world. Regarding the fight against terror, some radical religious terrorist organizations in Central Asia, especially Afghanistan, are a threat to the whole world. Therefore, there may be a top-down process of democratization in these countries, though it is not being discussed at the moment. If these governments become stuck between Russia and the West, this may be the greatest issue. These countries balance themselves between China, Russia and the West, and their leaders try to achieve a degree of democratization. It is, of course, not to European standards, but is realized through smaller reforms. Therefore, the stability of Central Asian countries, their prevention of radical movements, maintenance of their economies and preservation of their independence are important for the West, and these are a priority.
Taking all of this into consideration, I believe the balance will be maintained. I foresee that Central Asian countries will improve their relations with the West and China while maintaining a balance with Russia.
DS: As you know, there are many references to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 in Turkey. While Turkish academics say that the Middle Eastern order established by the agreement has come to an end, their reference to a 100-year-old agreement is responded to with ridicule by the West. What is your approach to this situation?
I do not think that there is such a thing as macro-Middle Eastern politics. Every special issue has its own structure. Some issues have regional characteristics, however it is understood that there are certain polarizations on the diplomatic level. We do not perceive a direct influence on every existing issue. Therefore, I do not think there is a macro trend. Of course, as every issue has its own dynamic structure, it is not possible to foresee in which way it will evolve. I do not think fortunetelling is a scientific or valid method. For example, no one knows in which way the Syrian crisis will continue to evolve. No one would believe in 2011 that it would result as it has today. It seems that resolution will take time. Of course, this will also be possible through lengthy negotiations, dialogue and diplomacy and it is not possible to foresee what will happen. Yet, especially for historians who analyze the situation, some perceive history as cyclical, but in reality, sometimes old and new go together. Thus, there may be new solutions, and diplomacy is there for this particular purpose. Beside all of this, the world has changed; we live in a different world today in which globalization is a fact and interests are economic rather than territorial. The validity of these comments is a whole other discussion. All of them seem more like speculations, as they are not based on solid facts.
DS: There are also certain comments suggesting that the current world order, which was established after World War II, is not relevant anymore and a new order is needed which, in turn, depends on a new war. What is your response to this view?
I absolutely disagree. First of all, these comments do not comprehend the changes the world is facing. Yes, these are done by analyzing the world wars. However, the world has changed tremendously. There are new actors, non-state actors, multinational corporations, nongovernmental organizations and democratization processes. In this new setting, war is not perceived as a solution, but a threat all countries want to avoid. There is criticism of the U.N.'s structure, yet it is also considered to be largely functioning. We should expect the U.N. to preserve its main structure. Of course, there may be some modifications to address the demands of new actors. These are all being discussed and the reforms have been in preparation for years. Ultimately, the reformed structure should be one that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which have the right to veto, agree on. This model is currently nonexistent. There is no kind of reform effort by these five countries. There are demands from other countries, which are gaining more influence over time, but none of them mention war. The world order may improve, so will the U.N., therefore the comments are unrealistic.It is forgotten that there is much data showing wars are unwanted and are becoming irrelevant. The nuclear balance is one part of this data. The countries in competition, such as the U.S., many EU countries, the Russian Federation and China, do not consider war as a viable option. Diplomacy is available as a means for actors to realize their purposes, even if only some proportion of it. I believe that world leaders are aware of the fact that wars are devastating and they are trying to avoid them through restrained tensions and diplomacy while also realizing their purposes. Of course, restrained tensions are a major issue, yet they are incomparable to a world war. Therefore, I think that there will be no global war and, moreover, diplomacy will play a greater role in resolving issues.