Standpoint of Turkey
Researcher at the SciencesPo CERI (Centre d'Etudes des Relations Internationales) in Paris
In this interview, SciencePo CERI researcher Bayram Balci analyzes international relations between Azerbaijan and its Turkish and Russian neighbors. He sets out to explain why Turkey and Azerbaijan maintain such a “special relationship,” because of their history but also of their economic, cultural, geographic and political ties. Besides, Balci analyzes Azerbaijan's relations with its powerful neighbor Russia, arguing that one should not make too much of their recent rapprochement. Finally, he deplores a marginalization of Armenia as it is left out of new energetic deal currently being made in the region.
REPAIR: Why are Turkey and Azerbaijan so close?
Bayram Balci: For Turkey, Azerbaijan is not a country like any other and cannot be compared to its other neighbors. There is a definite proximity in their identities since both countries belong in the same Turkic identity zone, or at least hold roughly the same views on Turkishness, which is not the case for other Turkish-speaking countries of the former USSR. Even if there are some differences between Turkish identity in Anatolia and Turkic identity in Azerbaijan, that proximity is recognized and asserted on both sides. Secondly, in the last twenty years, Turkey has developed a national Turkist and even pan-Turkist rhetoric which Azerbaijan relates to most strongly. Thirdly, both nations are geographically close, which is not really the case of other Turkish-speaking countries such as Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. During the Ottoman Empire, a small part of the country even found itself under Ottoman rule for a short period, long enough though to create strong bonds, something that did not happen with other Turkish-speaking Republics which were never part of the Ottoman sphere. Fourthly, in order to better grasp relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan, one should note that upon the advent of the Kemalist Republic, many Azeri intellectuals in the Russian Empire who had been active in the Muslim reformist movement moved to Turkey to help with the foundation of the new Republic. All this contributed to creating special ties between the two countries. And finally, since the breakup of the Soviet Union into independent nations, the fact that these two countries now have the same “enemy”, namely Armenia, has brought them somewhat closer.
How far can this “special relationship” go?
The geographic closeness of Turkey and Azerbaijan creates links of mutual dependency. One side cannot just do what it wants regardless of the other's position, it must take it into account. They are forced to demonstrate unfailing loyalty to one another. This was visible a few years ago when the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia almost materialized into the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border. At which point, it appeared that Turkey couldn't proceed as it wanted because of its Azerbaijani partner. The situation may be compared to some extent with American-Israeli relations. A small country, Israel, sometimes holds its great American ally hostage by imposing its views on Middle Eastern issues. Azerbaijan is definitely a smaller and less influential country than Turkey, but on some issues it “holds Turkey hostage”. And Turkey cannot take into account what its other neighbor Armenia is saying because Turkish public opinion is very favorable to Azerbaijan.
What type of relations do Erdogan and Aliyev maintain?
They are rather ambiguous. We don't have enough details about their private relations. In public, they display some solidarity, an obligation imposed on them by geopolitics and bilateral relations. But I doubt that it is working so well at a personal level because there are many ideological differences between them. Ilham Aliyev is deeply marked by his Soviet secularist education, and I believe that the current trend in Turkey with Erdogan becoming increasingly conservative must be somewhat worrying for him. And the conservative influence of Turkey on Azerbaijan must also be cause for embarrassment for authorities in Baku.
What about economic investments shared by the two countries?
We know that SOCAR (the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) is very important and has considerable investment power in Turkey. We also know that SOCAR is investing in other fields than oil – in Turkish banks in particular. Conversely, several hundreds of Turkish companies have developed activities in Azerbaijan, whether in restaurants/catering, small businesses, construction, etc. Finally, the basic and key sector in the relations between the two countries is energy. Whichever regime is in place in Ankara or Baku, I think that such common stakes generate interdependence. For instance, Ankara cannot be totally independent in its decisions because of all the revenue Turkey derives from the Ceyhan terminal [the maritime access to the Mediterranean at the end of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline bringing crude oil from the Azeri Chirag-Gunashli fields along the Caspian sea, Editor's note]. With relations based on such a crucial sector as utilities, even if you have strong political or ideological disagreements, you have to negotiate them separately. Turks know how to do that because they have already dealt with the Iranians and the Russians concerning gas. I think that in the years to come, Turkey's strategy will probably tend to diversify its energy providers to lower its current very high level of dependence to three countries – Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan. This is why Turks are interested in Iraqi Kurdistan and try to normalize their relations with Israel.
What kind of diplomatic relations do Turkey and Azerbaijan maintain?
Turkish and Azeri NGOs and lobbying groups in the United States and even in Europe work very well together. There is perfect coordination between these bodies because they take the same stance in relation to the Armenian Genocide and the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. Of course there are some divergences, namely as respects Ukraine or Russia, on which Baku and Ankara don't share the same views, but presently their main concern still is to agree on the Armenian question. However, I should refine this view because a few years ago that coordination between lobbies was operated through the political movement led by Fethullah Gülen. But since the fallout and internecine war between Gülen and Erdogan, it remains to be seen whether that coordination will still be functional.
Is religion – mostly Sunnite in Turkey and Shiite in Azerbaijan – a cause for divergence between the two states?
Even in a context when Erdogan is becoming increasingly – and sometimes unwillingly– a Sunnite leader, it doesn't appear that the difference in religious denomination between Turks and Azeris is an obstacle to their mutual understanding. The Turkic element, the ethnic and ideological identity, the same distrust of and rivalry with Armenia are enough of a common ground leaving the religious factor in the background. The only divergence on a religious level between Turks and Azeris might be in relation to the Middle East. At a time when conflicts in Iraq and Syria unfortunately grow more sectarian and religious, some Azeri Shiites –the most zealous– tend to distrust Turkish policy which they view as being anti-Shiite. In this case, the religious element definitely prevails over ethnic and national factors to define current standpoints regarding middle-Eastern tensions.
“One nation, two States.” Is this slogan still valid today?
Yes and no. But I think that many Turks do feel Turkish and Azeri, and vice-versa. However, you also have an Azerbaijani movement who treasures the linguistic specificity of Azerbaijan and doesn't want to be absorbed by Turkey. I know diplomats or military who make every effort to speak Azeri as it is spoken in Baku without trying to enlarge their vocabulary or conjugate in the Anatolian way in order to preserve the distinctive Azerbaijani linguistic forms.
Many people present Turkey as Azerbaijan's “big brother”. Is it ultimately the case?
Obviously, Turks are not capable of imposing everything to the Azerbaijani. And as regards being a big brother, I disagree with some analyses in the West that Turkey views itself as a big brother and wants to establish its supremacy over Turkish-speaking lands to create a Turkic world from the Adriatic to the Sea of China. I think that this view should be qualified. First, the “older brother” phrase is widely used in all Turkish languages as a polite formula to show respect. Secondly, Turkey has practiced a rather patronizing policy towards all the Turkic peoples in the 1990s, but has rapidly dropped it. I would even say that this type of rhetoric has been used largely because of Western attitudes. Indeed, after the collapse of the USSR, Western fears of seeing the new Muslim and Turkic Republics (Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan...) fall under the influence of Saudi Arabia or Iran drove many Western countries to promote the “Turkish model,” which was more familiar to the West, in order to ward off any Islamist surge. However, things unfolded differently. These countries never went down the Islamist road, Saudi Arabia and Iran never were models for them, and consequently the Turkish model so dear in the eyes of the West did not spread successfully in those areas.
What about the relationship between Azerbaijan and Russia?
Azerbaijan and Turkey are definitely major partners to each other. However, for Azerbaijan, the most important partner is not Turkey but Russia, its old guardian power, largely because Azerbaijan was formed during the Soviet period. It is the Soviets who built the republics across the Caucasus and Central Asia. Consequently, Azerbaijan cannot be indifferent to Russia. Also – and this is overlooked– most of the country's elites are still Russian-speaking. This is less the case in Central Asian countries, but many people in the establishment still currently in power were formed in Soviet times. So they have the same frame of mind and ways of thinking. What's more, Azerbaijan cannot afford to trigger Russia's wrath and potentially enormous destructive military power.
Also, there is another field in which Azerbaijan is dependent on Russia: migration. Even though the Azerbaijani economy is rather prosperous and blooming, many Azeris go to work in Russia. This is a powerful lever that Russia can use at any moment to keep Azerbaijan under its thumb, as it actually does with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Armenia. Therefore, a continuing domination and leadership of Russia over Azerbaijan is still the order of the day. Finally, in relation to Nagorno Karabakh, Russians keep playing a balancing act by putting pressure on one nation or the other. In case of extreme tension with Russia, Azeris fear that Russia might change that local balance of powers.
But Russia isn't all powerful, is it?
Azerbaijan still has a little room for maneuver. This appeared for instance when Putin asked for partners to join in the Eurasian economic union he had set up. He managed to impose it on Armenia, but not on Azerbaijan. How long will Azeris be able to hold out? I don't know because Putin can play many cards, such as exciting tensions and crises to maintain his power and put pressure on Azerbaijan.
How to you analyze the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia on the TurkStream project?
All the analysts are wrong who claim that because there is a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, Turkey will turn its back on the West. The rapprochement is limited, it shouldn't be overstated. You could even say that it rather is a return to old relations of before the Syrian crisis. The brekup between Turkey and Russia was damagin to both, and I think that Turks were so isolated that they regretted the downing of that Russian plane which caused the crisis between Moscow and Ankara. Sanctions imposed on Turkey were of course harmful, but they were just as detrimental to Russia because an embargo inherently goes both ways. To my mind, this normalization of relations is a spectacular masterstroke by Putin who saw how isolated and misunderstood Turkey was by its own NATO allies, the United States and Europe. The strong message sent to the West was that it wasn't able to defend its own allies, and NATO was weakened by it. Then, instead of acknowledging its failing, NATO claimed that Turkey was not a dependable ally. In the end, that type of analysis only bolstered Putin's power.
There have been talks for the creation of a new energetic corridor along the Russia Iran axis via Armenia. Is the new geopolitical deal between Russia and Turkey on the one hand and Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran on the other going to change things for Armenia?
It will hardly change anything because pipelines weren't going through Armenia before, and it was kept away from the recent dealings. Therefore, unfortunately for Armenia, openings for a normalization of relations with Turkey are very far off. The fact that Turkey is isolated on the regional scene will bring it closer to its Azeri ally, which will increase Armenia's isolation. It's not a good thing for Armenia's economic future nor for Caucasus in general. An opening of the Turkish-Armenian border would naturally be beneficial to the whole of Caucasus.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov recently declared that Turkey could play a “positive role” in the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process. Which positive role, according to you?
I think that Turkey cannot do much at the moment. Before the signing of the Zurich Protocols, when Turkish diplomacy was still strong, Turkey could both put pressure on and reassure Azerbaijan while trying to normalize its relations with Armenia. But at the moment, Turkey is so fragile and unstable that it cannot go forward. All it can do is bolster and broaden its support to Azerbaijan because it is a solid asset.