Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hand delivered a letter from President Barack Obama to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on June 6. “I am aware of the fact that there are serious issues in our relationship,” Obama wrote, “but I am confident that we can address them.”
The U.S. relationship with Azerbaijan is a crucial one at the moment: Thousands of flights (last year alone carrying 100,000 U.S. military personnel) into and out of Afghanistan have passed over Azerbaijani territory thanks to an overflight agreement. Without it, the 30,000 troop surge there would likely be impossible.
But recent months have indeed seen “serious issues” surface in the bilateral relationship—so serious that the relationship has sunk to an all-time low. The primary cause of the rift is a development between Azerbaijan’s neighbors: the Turkey-Armenia reconciliation process.
Normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey is a major priority for the Obama administration, and senior officials have spent considerable time and international political capital to make it happen. And for good reason: Normalization would represent a real breakthrough in the Caucasus—a strategic region beset with seemingly intractable conflicts.
Diplomatic ties between Armenia and Turkey have been severed for almost 20 years, but hostility between Ankara and Yerevan has deep historical roots. In particular, the legacy of the Great Calamity (or “Medz Yeghern” in Armenian) of 1915, when close to a million Armenians living in Eastern Turkey were deported or killed, looms large. Armenia now officially commemorates this tragedy as a genocide, while Turkey goes to astonishing diplomatic lengths to prevent other countries from doing so. In just one example, Ankara temporarily pulled its ambassador to Washington after a House Committee passed a nonbinding resolution declaring the events of 1915 a genocide.
In a historic breakthrough, the two countries signed a roadmap for normalizing relations in October 2009 in Geneva with active U.S. involvement. The agreement, also known as the Protocols, set up a timetable for reopening the border and establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. Additionally, it called for creating a binational commission tasked with examining the 1915 events in an open and cooperative manner.
The Protocols’ ratification would promote Armenia’s regional integration by boosting trade and political engagement with Turkey, which would in turn deepen interdependence and intersociety linkages. Such regional integration could also increase the chances of resolving other regional conflicts. Isolation of the countries from one another has only made the conflicts more severe.
Unfortunately, Azerbaijan’s shortsighted outrage, the Turkish government’s political timidity, and Armenia’s frustration have gotten in the way of a win-win outcome for all parties.
Aliyev was furious that he was not consulted on the creation of the Protocols. He felt betrayed both by the United States and by Turkey, which it sees as its closest ally in the region.
Azerbaijan’s chief concern regarding the Protocols was the agreement’s silence on Nagorno-Karabakh, the locus of one of the so-called “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet region. This majority-Armenian region within Azerbaijan fought and, with Armenia’s help, won a bloody war with the government in Baku in the early 1990s. It remains a de facto but unrecognized independent pseudo-state within Azerbaijan’s borders. That Turkey was willing to normalize relations with Armenia, the breakaway region’s patron, without demanding concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh was unacceptable to Azerbaijan.
The Obama administration made the choice not to link the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to the Armenia-Turkey reconciliation process, operating on the logic that normalization would facilitate conflict resolution and not the other way around. Turkey appeared to agree.
Both were mistaken. Azerbaijan’s reaction was swift and pointed both in public (recent weeks have even seen thinly veiled threats to cancel the overflights agreement) and behind the scenes, where both U.S. and Turkish interlocutors apparently got an earful. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan rushed to reassure Azerbaijan that the Protocols would not be ratified before Nagorno-Karabakh is resolved, which effectively killed the deal.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who had been out on a political limb in supporting the Protocols, was unwilling to move ahead unilaterally and suspended his country’s ratification procedure on May 16. In short, the reconciliation process, while not dead, is stuck.
The recent troubles between Washington and Baku have made it clear that any efforts to revive the Protocols will depend on the commitment of all regional actors to the process. Azerbaijan now must be made a stakeholder in the process, whatever the administration’s original game plan might have been. And the United States must redouble multilateral efforts to address the Nagarno-Karabakh dispute and deepen bilateral U.S. engagement with Azerbaijan. Obama’s letter and Gates’s visit are important first steps, especially given the importance of such symbolic gestures in that part of the world.
At the same time, however, the administration should not let Aliyev’s leverage over Afghan transit prevent progress on the Protocols. The administration should continue to express gratitude for Azerbaijan’s contribution to our efforts in Afghanistan, but it should also make clear that tit-for-tat diplomacy is not acceptable for a partner of the United States. Baku also needs to get the message from both Washington and Ankara that Armenia-Turkey reconciliation is likely the most effective path to a resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh and that thwarting the reconciliation process will only make finding a compromise more difficult. Transforming the Caucasus from its current sorry state does not have to be a zero-sum game.
Yekaterina Chertova recently completed an internship in the National Security and International Policy Program at American Progress. Samuel Charap is a Fellow in the program.