In order for Turkey to better understand this current predicament, it would do well to examine the reciprocal good will visits that have taken place between France and Armenia in recent months, as well as the direction taken by French investments in the Caucuses these days. Sarkozy’s two-day visit to Yerevan (not to mention his hours-long stops in Azerbaijan and Georgia) actually includes messages that relate to the status of France within the Minsk Group. This attempt to “grab a role” for France in the region fits in line with efforts that began first in Africa and have now moved on to the Caucasus.
While statements made in Yerevan by Nicolas Sarkozy regarding 1915 and Nagorno-Karabakh could be perceived as election-time fodder, they were also aimed at strengthening the position of French stock in Armenia. The ongoing reciprocal visits between France and Armenia shed some light on the most recent heights reached in the attempt to create stronger economic relations between these two countries.
First of all, a few people from the French parliament visited the Karabakh leadership, which is not officially recognized by any international organization or state, last August, calling on this leadership to create a new legal model for itself. In fact, this visit was labeled by these people as “the now-traditional French-Karabakh inter-parliamentary visit.” In this visit, which took place two months in advance of Sarkozy’s visit to Yerevan, when he made the statement, “No one other than the French can understand just what Karabakh means for Armenia,” the French parliamentarians stressed that a Kosovo model needed to be implemented in Karabakh and that Karabakh possessed a unique character of its own. This turn of events, which elicited negative reactions from Azerbaijan, was characterized by the French Foreign Ministry as connected with “a visit made of the own free will of the French parliamentarians.” Still, this move by the French remained in people’s minds.
A visit paid a few weeks later to Yerevan by French Transportation Minister Thierry Mariani was based around a variety of different meetings aimed at developing dual relations. According to news that emerged shortly in the wake of Mariani’s visit, there was now talk in Armenia of turning over 20 percent of the shares in the Electric Network of Armenia, nearly 100 percent of which has up until now been held by Russia, to the French. But concrete results on this front were to emerge with Sarkozy’s visit. It is well known that France is interested not only in the electrical network and distribution in Armenia, but also in the rebuilding and caretaking of a nuclear power plant. Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan, who visited France after his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, spoke publicly about his pride in the fact that France is the second-largest country to invest in Armenia. Noting that since the month of July, French investment in Armenia has reached the level of $750 million, President Sarksyan praised a French wine factory in Armenia, as well as investments made by French companies such as Orange, Alcatel and Pernod Ricard, all of which are active in Armenia. Yerevan Mayor Karen Karapetian, who was in France for meetings at the same time that President Sarksyan was there, also stated that the Armenians were indebted to the French for the good will they have shown on the genocide issue. During this time period, when reciprocal meetings were more frequent, the French Embassy in Yerevan in concert with the Armenian-French Business Club, created by the Armenian Foreign Ministry, decided to shoulder the mission of helping guide French investors in Armenia. The efforts made by French investors in the North-South Highway project are also significant.
A ‘turning point’ in relations
And thus the most recent visit by Sarkozy to Armenia represents the latest stage in the preparations that have been under way for a long time now. The visit dealt with many topics that promise profit in the long term for both Armenia and France and was -- to use Sarksyan’s description -- a “turning point.”
Sarkozy, who rounded out his time in Yerevan by meeting with figures such as Charles Aznavour and Patrick Devejian, asserted in comparing the issue of Karabakh to clashes between the French and Germans that the two countries in question could make advances by learning from the experiences of Europe. Sarkozy, who used the Armenian word for “genocide” during a speech given at the official introduction of the statue of Jules Bastien-Lepage in Yerevan’s French Square, was taking the first step that would trigger a series of reciprocal jests. As a response to France’s friendly enterprises, President Sarksyan presented many French government ministers and bureaucrats with the Saint Mesrop Mashtot (founder of the Armenian alphabet) and Honor medals. As for the French, they awarded President Sarksyan with the “Légion d’honneur” and Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian with the “Légion d’honneur Grand Officier.”
There is little question that these steps taken are the sort that call for a close watch to be kept on regional balances from here onwards. But alongside it now being clear that France does not count Turkey as being from the region, it is also striking just how hesitant its stance towards Russia is. Because alongside the moves that seem to ignore the weighty economic presence of Russia in the Armenian economy, France, in trying to shoulder a leader role in the Karabakh issue, is also taking on a topic that directly concerns Russia. And no matter how much Sarkozy may try to disguise the hesitant nature of France’s approach to Russia -- by doing things like urging the Georgian leadership to foster better relations with Moscow -- the truth is that the sort of steps that Turkey can take that will bring about diplomatic success on the Armenian front are the sort that will receive support from both Russia and the US. It must not be forgotten that the greatest success that will come of Ankara’s zero problem policy with its neighbors -- a policy that the West has begun to criticize -- will be that problems with Armenia will be ironed out, and Turkey’s regional position will be strengthened. And after this happens, no matter which administration comes to the helm of Armenia, when the agenda turns to cooperation with the West, Yerevan will create policies that speak more to its relations with Turkey than with France.
*Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu is a strategic outlook expert.