18.02.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Turkey is counting on the Zangezur Corridor

Turkey is counting on the Zangezur Corridor

At an event marking the 97th anniversary of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, or MIT, held on January 10 this year, President Recep Erdoğan was quoted by Anadolu Ajansi as saying: “Day by day, Turkey is strengthening its position as an influential power and leading player on the global chessboard.”

He went on to say that Ankara has created a “Turkish axis” and does not intend to listen to any other parties when conducting its own foreign policy. In his speech to representatives of the country’s main intelligence service, Recep Erdoğan insisted that Turkey takes all necessary measures to protect its interests in the diplomatic and military sectors, disregarding the views of other countries and determining its foreign policy on its own.

Addresses of this kind by the Turkish President to the national intelligence agency are significant, as the intelligence service has contributed greatly to Turkey’s foreign policy successes. Not for nothing did Erdoğan emphasize in his speech: “None of the successes that our country has achieved are the result of chance.” Moreover, it is MIT that the Turkish leader has entrusted with new tasks aimed at strengthening and developing Turkey’s independent foreign policy in accordance with its national interests and priorities, regardless of the views and interests of other states, and, naturally, having recourse to its special forces and the secret forms and methods used by its domestic intelligence service.

Indeed, modern Turkey has much to be proud of in terms of its foreign policy — it has managed to steer a pragmatic and proactive course and has achieved what may turn out to be historic breakthroughs in its ambition to attain its revanchist Pan-Turkic, and even Pan-Turanist goals, which involve the close integration of all Turkic states.

Today, virtually all Turkic republics of the post-Soviet space have espoused the ideologies of Turkic nationalism and Pan-Turkism, which, on the one hand, is a natural reflection of their common ethnic and cultural heritage, and on the other hand, an attempt to fill the ideological vacuum caused by the collapse of the USSR and attain a broad-based social integration.

As for the doctrine of Pan-Turanism, it is based on the geopolitical Turan project — a systematic reorientation of Turkey, as the main Turkic country, towards the vast region once known as Turkestan, which included both Russian (Western) and Chinese (Eastern) Turkestan. And this strategy, which reflects the political views and dreams of many generations of Turkish politicians in the period since the foundation of the Republic, began to take on new life with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and subsequently with Azerbaijan’s gaining of control over the Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020-2023.

Recep Erdoğan, referring to unstable processes in today’s world, rightly pointed out that with the outbreak of the military and political conflict between Russia and Ukraine, security issues and arms races have taken on a new importance worldwide. Specifically, in his address at the MIT headquarters, he said: “Following the Russia-Ukraine war, the plates in the world have shifted. … We also see radical changes in security concepts. For example, states that considered defense expenditures a waste and a burden on the public budget up to 5–10 years ago have entered into an arms race in the last year or two. Turkey, thankfully, is one of the countries that… started investing in its defense capacity very early.”

In effect, Erdoğan is addressing the outside world and warning regional and extra-regional nations that Ankara is able to protect and promote its foreign policy interests, particularly in relation to the “Turkish axis,” through both open diplomatic channels (the Turkish Foreign Ministry) and undercover diplomacy (MIT), and with the support of its strong military. However, it is difficult to say how capable the Turkish army is today in comparison with the militaries of other countries whose interests may come into conflict with those of Turkey. Nevertheless, in pursuing its Turan ambitions Ankara is not looking westward, but northwards and eastwards. That is, its project is unlikely to bring it into conflict with its NATO allies, but may inflame relations with Russia, China and Iran, all of which have no less powerful armies.

Turkey’s centuries of experience in the field of diplomacy have enabled to pursue a flexible approach, using “soft power” to great effect and often camouflaging its far-reaching geopolitical and military-strategic goals with mutually beneficial trade initiatives and economic partnerships. Turkey has always been a significant trading nation and President Erdoğan probably outclasses most of his foreign counterparts when it comes to negotiating tactics and skills, his ability to obtain economic and political dividends, and his readiness to use hard power against weak adversaries and flirt with key players to avoid stalemates.

The geopolitical and geo-economic situation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, combined with its pragmatic diplomacy and its skillful use of its strategic geographical location and the Turkic factor, enabled Turkey to boost its international status in the early years of the 21st Century and establish its position as important energy hub at the gateway to Europe. It was Turkey’s traditionally strong strategic partnership with Britain that laid the foundations for a new phase in the Great Game, involving the creation of a number of important energy and transport communications providing access to the rich resources of the Caspian basin and the Caspian Turkic states.

With the launch of the Trans-Caspian pipeline, it became possible to create a Trans-Anatolian and southern transport corridor through Turkey. With relations between the West and Russia growing increasingly tense, these infrastructure routes have taken on a new role in the network of connections linking Europe and Asia. In fact, this infrastructure route from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey to the EU countries has paved the way for the Middle Corridor — a multimodal transport corridor from China through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to Europe. This project forms part of China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative.

Naturally, China’s economy, for all its rapid growth, is heavily dependent on exports. Beijing has reversed the traditional economic law — instead of demand creating its own supply, supply is creating its own demand. However, its overproduction of goods leaves China in great need of profitable foreign markets, and in order to ensure uninterrupted access to the financially secure European market, Beijing needs new transit routes. Unfortunately, the harsh sanctions imposed against Russia by the US and Europe means that China can no longer rely on the transportation of Chinese goods through the Russian Federation to the EU. For this reason, and possibly other reasons as well, China has an interest in the development of new transit routes by passing Russia (including the Middle Corridor through Turkey, mentioned above).

The Turkish route is, it seems, already mapped out, and the rails have been laid. But after Azerbaijan’s — and Turkey’s — military success in Nagorno-Karabakh back in the fall of 2020, Ankara and Baku hoped to reduce the section of the international transit route passing through southern Armenia (in particular, the 47-km section of the Meghri road in Syunik Province). This project was provisionally named the Zangezur Corridor, and is aimed at enabling cargo and passenger transportation from mainland Azerbaijan to the exclave of Nakhchivan and then on to Turkey.

The Zangezur route is not referred to as a corridor in the three-party online Declaration by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia, dated November 9, 2020, as Armenia has repeatedly pointed out, and as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently confirmed. However, under Paragraph 9 of that Declaration Armenia is required to allow a transport link between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan, to be protected by Russian FSB border forces. However, since the parties have still failed to ensure the operation of the Lachin corridor, which is supposed to connect Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh, and there is virtually no Armenian population left in Nagorno-Karabakh itself, problems have arisen with the enforcement of Paragraph 9.

Nevertheless, Yerevan is ready to provide Baku with a transportation link through Armenian territory (including the Meghri district), to the Nakhchivan exclave, but not in the form of a corridor (which is defined as a route with no border and customs control). Armenia also insists that the route must comply with the principles of equality and the preservation of the sovereignty of Armenia’s territory, as is customary in international practice and law. Azerbaijan does not accept Armenia’s position and insists that cargo and passengers be allowed to travel trough this route without being subjected to border or customs control. It is obvious that Baku is coordinating its strategy with Ankara, and both countries see the Zangezur corridor as the shortest route allowing Turkey access to Azerbaijan and then through the Caspian Sea to the Turkic countries of Central Asia — an essential element of Turkey’s Turan geopolitical project. However, Turkey is trying to deflect attention from its interest in the Zangezur corridor by promoting the idea of a Middle Corridor, a profitable major international transit route for goods between Asia and Europe.

As has been widely reported, in 2023, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, referring to the protracted discussions relating to the opening of the Zangezur corridor, has noted that the main problem is not Armenia, but the categorical stance taken by neighboring Iran. The fact is that Tehran fears that a weakened Armenia may be forced to give up its sovereignty over Zangezur, and thus lose control over its border with Iran. Such a prospect could lead to the strengthening of Turkey and the realization of its Turan project, which is disadvantageous to Iran. This is why Tehran has repeatedly and publicly opposed the Zangezur route — at least in the form of a corridor — with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian all publicly voicing objections to it on a number of occasions. If the project goes ahead Iran has threatened to engage in hostilities and take control of southern Armenia.

This obstacle was discussed by the foreign ministers, and it is possible that the Zangezur corridor issue will once again be discussed by Ebrahim Raisi and Recep Erdoğan during their upcoming meeting in Ankara on January 24. Meanwhile, in order to relieve tension in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan Tehran has offered Baku a route to Nakhchivan through Iranian territory, bypassing the Zangezur corridor. The two countries have agreed to the construction of a number of infrastructure objects, including roads and two bridges across the Aras river. The Iranian route between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan would be slightly longer than the Zangezur corridor — 49 km instead of 47 km. Baku now claims that Armenia is being left out of regional trade and communication projects because of its decision to use the Iranian route between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan.

However, its choice of the Iranian route does not mean that Turkey and Azerbaijan have abandoned their plans for the Zangezur corridor through Armenian territory. For example, on January 7 Turkey’s Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, Abdulkadir Uraloğlu, stated that Turkey expects to implement the Zangezur corridor project by 2029. Moreover, Azerbaijan has already actually built a section of the route, a 6-lane highway road from Baku to Horadiz, and the length of the Turkish section of the corridor is expected to be 224 km (including the Iğdır — Kars railway). The Armenian section of the route would be between 43 and 47 km long. As Abdulkadir Uraloğlu put it, the implementation of the Zangezur corridor will give Turkey “direct and easier access to the countries of the Turkic world and Central Asia.”

At an official level, Turkey has no objection to Iran becoming part of the Turkey-Azerbaijan nexus by allowing a route through its territory. However, Ankara and Baku both realize that Iran’s involvement will prevent them from gaining full control over the route and implementing their far-reaching plans for the Turan project. Therefore, Turkey is still counting on the creation of the Zangezur corridor.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, in an interview with local media earlier this January, categorically stated that Baku is demanding that Yerevan open the Zangezur corridor and allow “uncontrolled” traffic of passengers and goods to Nakhchivan (i.e. without border and customs control). Otherwise, he warned, Azerbaijan may seal its border with Armenia entirely. In effect, Baku is either issuing an ultimatum demand or rejecting the peace process and the peace treaty it has signed with Yerevan.

Armenia has refused to satisfy Azerbaijan’s demands in relation to Zangezur, but has agreed to open the route on favorable and simplified transit terms. As for the proposed deployment of Russian FSB border troops along the route of the 47-km Zangezur corridor, so far Azerbaijan has seemed receptive to this idea, but if Armenia and Russia also agree on this point, it is possible that Turkey will find reasons for objecting. Ankara and Baku are unlikely to be satisfied with Russian control of the Zangezur corridor, as this route is to form part of the Turan project. They may agree to begin with, but are likely to try and play for time.

Based on a review of the wider geographical picture, we can conclude that a Middle Corridor route from China through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to Europe does really exist. But it is 200 km longer than the Zangezur corridor through Armenia. But surely that 200 km cannot be a serious problem for China?

It is clear that the shortest route, through Armenian territory, is problematic, as it involves the conflicting interests of a number of different centers and powers (including Russia, Iran, India, China, Turkey and the West). But it is Russia’s involvement in Zangezur that could potentially change the situation, curbing the geopolitical ambitions of both Turkey and the Collective West. Ankara, despite its “Turkish axis” policy, will have to take Moscow’s position into account. And China, however much it may dislike it, will still be unable to ignore the Russian factor.


Alexander SVARANTS — Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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