The White House is touting President Obama’s visit to Turkey as the cure-all that will not only put US-Turkey relations back on track, but help to resolve some of Europe’s energy security concerns.
However, media attention has focused on Mr Obama’s campaign pledge to refer to Turkey’s “genocide” of Armenians in the 20th century, and whether he will backtrack on that language in deference to his hosts. When it comes to the region’s energy geopolitics, however, it is to Turkey’s relations with another Caucasus neighbour, Azerbaijan, that Mr Obama should turn his focus.
One nation, two countries is what they used to say about Azerbaijan and Turkey. Their culture, language and heritage have much in common, and since Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia in the early 1990s, Turkey has supported its linguistic brethren by keeping its border with Armenia closed.
In the past few months, however, Azerbaijani-Turkish relations have become significantly strained, not just because Ankara is entertaining closer ties, including an open border, with Yerevan, but because Ankara and Baku are locked in a struggle over natural gas supplies to Europe. Interestingly, exactly the same issue has at the same time fostered increasingly close relations between Azerbaijan and Greece.
Turkey turning into energy trader with EU
At issue is the so-called Turkey-Greece Interconnector gas pipeline, which is to be eventually expanded across the Adriatic to Italy.
Once completed, this route would theoretically bring Azerbaijan’s Caspian gas resources to energy-hungry southeastern Europe, helping to ameliorate the EU’s overdependence on Russian reserves.
The idea conjured during the Clinton administration, and still pushed by Mr Obama’s newly appointed officials, is that Turkey will serve as an alternative corridor, not under the control of unpredictable decision-makers in the Kremlin.
But, as Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has become increasingly frustrated with the EU’s mixed signals on membership for Turkey, he has pointedly chosen to emulate Moscow in Turkey’s energy relationship with the Union.
As the EU continues to stall on opening the energy chapter of Turkey’s accession negotiations, Ankara’s policy is now to become an energy middle man, not an energy partner for Europe.
So, instead of being a conduit for Azerbaijani gas to Greece and elsewhere on the continent, Turkey is now attempting to strong-arm Baku into selling its gas at discount prices to Ankara, so that Turkey can sell it at almost four times the price to European consumers.
Russia’s attempt to do this with Caspian gas during the past two decades is exactly what prompted countries like Azerbaijan – and attracted US involvement – to seek alternative routes such as Turkey.
Now, Azerbaijan’s leadership is naturally peeved at Turkish decision-makers, choosing instead to work on the other piece of the corridor, namely Greece.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev visited Athens in February and was greeted warmly by Prime Minister Karamanlis as the two countries agreed on cooperation in a number of spheres: economic, political and energy.
The Azerbaijan-Greece intergovernmental economic commission, which has met since 2005, is now stepping up its activities. Greek companies are increasingly investing in Azerbaijan’s still-growing economy, and not just in the energy sector. As Mr Obama courts Turkey, Baku has a greater friend in Athens than in Ankara.
Need for more EU involvement in Black Sea region
Either way, both Azerbaijan and Greece lose out if Turkey remains an obstacle to the expansion of the Turkey-Greece Interconnector.
The crux of the problem lies in the pace of Western integration in the broader Black Sea region. Despite its cultural, linguistic and historical ties to Cyprus, Greece supports Turkey’s EU accession because its leadership is aware of the enormous benefits in regional development, security and cooperation that can be accrued with the broader region’s greater integration.
While Turkish tactics are certainly questionable, Ankara’s strategic EU accession aims are not only legitimate, but central to the transformation of Europe’s periphery.
At the moment, intransigence by EU member states, such as France and Germany, on the energy chapter of Turkey’s accession process is not only whipping up a backlash in Turkey, but jeopardizing the EU’s energy security and undermining positive links between EU members such as Greece and EU neighbours like Azerbaijan.
If the current conundrum continues, the only way out for Azerbaijan will be to turn to Russia – now offering Baku better prices for gas than Turkey.
Two days before his Turkey visit, Mr Obama will meet Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy. If he is serious about helping to ameliorate EU energy security, he will politely remind his French and German counterparts that opening Turkey’s energy accession chapter is the first step in acting in their own interests.
Alexandros Petersen is Dinu Patriciu Fellow for Transatlantic Energy Security and associate director of the Eurasia Energy Center at the Atlantic Council. This article was previously published as “EU needs to open energy accession chapter with Turkey” in EUobserver. It article was also republished in CNN Türk.