For many centuries, rivalry among Turkey, Iran and Russia determined the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. In the 19th and 20th centuries other actors asserted their presence, too. First, there was Great Britain. At the heyday of the Empire it possessed global influence. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union there came the United States and the European Union. The influence of Iran, by virtue of the country’s international isolation and the specificity of its political and ideological regime, has now weakened. Therefore, in analyzing the regional vectors of strategic attraction and repulsion in the South Caucasus one should focus primarily on Turkey and Russia. For ethnic, historical, geopolitical and cultural reasons Azerbaijan experiences the effects of these fields of tension to the greatest degree.
EMERGENCE OF BAKU AS A PARTNER
For the past two centuries Azerbaijan was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and experienced their great cultural and civilizational impact. Both the imperial administration and the Soviet leadership restricted contacts between Azerbaijan and closely related Turkey in every possible way. The situation changed radically after the restoration of independence in the early 1990s. Ankara was one of the first foreign capitals to have announced its recognition of this act, opened a diplomatic mission in Baku, and began to actively develop relations with Azerbaijan along all lines.
This process, which had started back under the first post-Soviet administration of President Ayaz Mutallibov, was comprehensive during the brief period of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan’s rule and the presidency of Abulfaz Elcibey. In the context of the proclaimed policy of Azerbaijan’s Turkization Turkey was declared the only ally and model to be replicated in building Azerbaijan’s statehood. Turkish advisers cropped up at all government offices and institutions. Everything related to the former Soviet Union and Russia was interpreted as a legacy of the colonial past, doomed to be pulled down and wiped out. President Elcibey publicly called himself “a soldier of Ataturk,” and he pointedly distanced himself from anything Russian. Azerbaijan was the first of the newly independent states to have achieved the withdrawal of the former Soviet and now Russian Army, Air Force and Navy from its territory. Trading and economic relations rapidly went into decline. Baku refused to ratify the treaty on the Commonwealth of Independent States and froze its participation in it. The brief rule of Elcibey and the PFA in 1992-1993 was a period of unchallenged dominance of Ankara and the rapid weakening of Moscow’s influence.
The West – both the United States and the European Union – was then mostly concerned about how to achieve successful completion of the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the former Warsaw Pact countries without complications. So it was in no hurry to venture into the realm of Russia’s exclusive influence – the post-Soviet space, which included Azerbaijan. As for Iran, the PFA government and President Elcibey made no secret of their negative attitude towards the Islamist regime in Tehran as the oppressor of more than 20 million southern Azerbaijanis.
As a result of acute political crisis in the summer of 1993, the PFA government fell, Elcibey resigned, and experienced and respected politician Heydar Aliyev was invited to assume the reigns of state power. He put an end to the one-sided orientation towards Ankara and laid the foundations for the modern multi-vector foreign policy of Azerbaijan. The country returned to the CIS, and for a certain period of time (until 1999) it became a member of the Moscow-established Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Security between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Azerbaijan was signed. Lengthy negotiations settled the terms on which Moscow continued to use the Gabala radar, an important component of the strategic early warning system.
However, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s strong dislike of Aliyev, well-known since their joint work in the Soviet Communist Party’s Politburo, left no chance for building up trust between the two men, and this had a negative effect on Russian-Azerbaijani relations. Moreover, in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh Moscow tacitly sided with Yerevan to provide the Armenians with economic and military support. As a result, Azerbaijan did not return to the Russian sphere of influence, but developed a slow but sure drift towards the EU and the U.S. President Aliyev also succeeded into reviving the dialogue with Iran somewhat.
Trust and close personal contacts between Aliyev and his Turkish counterpart Suleyman Demirel contributed to preserving the priority of Baku’s partnership with Ankara. The formula of Azerbaijani-Turkish relations was confined to the maxim “One nation, two states” coined by President Aliyev. At the same time, Baku persistently pursued a policy of equality without any “elder-brother-younger-brother” distribution of roles. The services of Turkish advisers, including those in the army, were soon rejected. In a large consortium on Azerbaijan’s Caspian shelf – Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (oil) and Shah Deniz (gas) – Turkey, like Russia, received a modest 10-percent stake, while the Anglo-American BP gained the status of the majority shareholder and project operator.
The completion of the presidential tenure of Suleyman Demirel and his successor Ahmet Necdet Sezer, and the establishment of a long-term rule of moderate Islamists from the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left an unmistakable imprint on Turkish-Azerbaijani relations. There was less confidence and personal warmth and more pragmatism in the relations between the leaders. Turkish nationalist statesmen in the top echelons of power and in the army were, of course, more suitable as partners for the secular-oriented Azerbaijani leadership than the Islamists from the AKP, albeit moderate ones.
A reverse evolution occurred in relations with Russia’s leadership. Boris Yeltsin was replaced by a former Soviet intelligence officer, Vladimir Putin, who made no secret of his reverence of President Aliyev, a former KGB general and Politburo member. Good personal contacts were later established between the new presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia, Ilham Aliyev and Dmitry Medvedev. Both are about the same age, well educated, modern-minded and aimed at modernizing their countries with reliance on a strong vertical chain of command.
The personal factor in relations among Baku, Moscow and Ankara continued to play an important role, but changes in Azerbaijan itself proved a far more significant factor. Since the early 2000s the country has been receiving large oil revenues, which allowed for achieving fantastic economic growth rates and a sharp rise in living standards. Azerbaijan, which once required external financial and technical assistance, political and diplomatic support, and guidance and advice, has transformed into a stable, self-confident and booming nation. This increase in the economic and geopolitical weight affected the relations with all foreign partners, including Turkey and Russia.
BAKU AND ANKARA: LOVE-HATE RELATIONS
The strategic partnership with Ankara has been preserved. After Turkey in August 2008 distanced itself from the Georgian-Russian war, Baku realized that unspoken military-political assurances from Ankara were not enough. It insisted on and achieved the conclusion in 2010 of an agreement on strategic partnership and mutual assistance between Azerbaijan and Turkey. Article 2 of that treaty states that in the event of an armed attack or aggression by a third state or a group of states either party will assist the other with all available means. Article 3 provides for close cooperation in defense and military-technical policies. Also, there are provisions for joint action to address threats and challenges to national security. In accordance with a joint statement adopted by the presidents and ratified by the parliaments a high-level council for strategic cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey was established.
Trading, economic, transport and communication relations between Baku and Ankara are on the ascent. Contrary to skeptical forecasts, success was achieved in implementing strategic projects for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (having a throughput of 50 million tons and a potential for further expansion) and the Baku-Erzurum gas pipeline. Work is in progress for linking railways and for upgrading the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line. The pipeline projects ITGI (Interconnector Turkey-Greece-Italy) and TAP (Trans-Adriatic Pipeline) and Nabucco are in the development phase.
Turkey shares the first/second place with Russia in Azerbaijan’s import and is number one foreign investor in the oil sector of its economy. Many thousands of businessmen from Turkey have opened small and medium-sized enterprises here. In turn, Azerbaijan, using its solid financial resources, is increasingly present as a major investor in Turkey through its state oil company (SOCAR). Private Azeri investments are plentiful, too.
The only foreign television channel that is available in Azerbaijan in the national meter band is Turkey’s state-run TRT-1. In terms of network density and coverage Turkish educational institutions (universities, lyceums and kindergartens) hold second place in Azerbaijan after similar institutions with tuition in Russian, but, unlike the latter, they show a sustained upward trend. Thousands of Azerbaijani students enter universities in Turkey – under government programs or on their own.
Azerbaijan and Turkey are working closely in the political and military spheres. Ankara unequivocally stands by Azerbaijan’s side in its dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan has always supported Turkey in the so-called Armenian genocide controversy. The parties coordinate efforts by their government agencies, public institutions, and foreign diasporas. The heads of state, government and parliament and government ministers and military meet on a regular basis. Azerbaijani officers are trained at Turkish military academies. Close cooperation is being established in arms manufacturing. Ankara and Baku are the most active advocates and actors of a policy of rapprochement and integration among Turkic states and nations. Azerbaijan’s representative has for a long time led the Joint Administration of Turkic Arts and Culture (TURKSOY). Baku hosts the office of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic-Speaking Countries (TURKPA).
However, close strategic partnership between Turkey and Azerbaijan does not exclude a certain divergence of interests. Baku has rejected, politely but firmly, Ankara’s offer to become the exclusive seller of Azerbaijani gas in the markets of third countries. Tough bargaining is on over the price of gas delivered to Turkey (about 6 billion cubic meters under the first phase of the Shah Deniz project and the same amount under the second phase), and over its transit to third countries. Although after the meeting between the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yildiz and Azerbaijan’s Minister of Industry and Energy Natiq Aliyev in late April 2011 the achievement of a final agreement was announced, the signing of the documents has been postponed.
Turkey (as well as Iran) unilaterally abolished visa requirements for the citizens of Azerbaijan. However, Baku does not hurry to reciprocate. Dailies in Istanbul and Ankara are speculating that it was due to disagreements on this issue, as well as the fact that gas contracts have not been finalized to this day, that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s scheduled visit to Baku has been postponed.
There are disagreements on a number of international issues. Baku has not recognized Kosovo’s independence and sided with Serbia, while Ankara was one of the first to have unconditionally backed Kosovo’s Albanians. Baku has supported the United States in Iraq and delegated a small military contingent to the coalition, while Turkey pointedly refused to allow the transit of U.S. troops through its territory.
In view of the smoldering Nagorno-Karabakh problem Azerbaijan has not yet agreed to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It is noteworthy that while relations between Turkey and Israel get cooler, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are becoming Tel-Aviv’s privileged allies among the Muslim countries. Finally, Azerbaijan, in contrast to Georgia, is not pressing for its integration with NATO, of which Turkey is an important member.
The true strength of Azerbaijani-Turkish partnership was put to test when in 2010 the Zurich protocols were signed envisaging the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. The United States, acting as the architect and sponsor of these documents, failed to persuade the Azerbaijani leadership that the process of normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations and the Karabakh conflict settlement may proceed separately. Baku stood firm. Ankara said that the Armenian border would be opened only after Armenian forces have begun to vacate the occupied Azerbaijani territories.
The public opinion in Turkey was on Azerbaijan’s side. A recent survey by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) in 81 regions of the country showed that even today 39 percent of respondents would like to see an open border with Armenia, while 44 percent are against. It has turned out that Ankara has more moderate leverage to influence the political forces and public opinion in Azerbaijan, than Baku’s respective capabilities in Turkey.
The ruling AKP party has no influential partner parties in Azerbaijan. In general, in recent years Turkey has deliberately distanced itself from the political life of the brotherly country. Comments by official Turkish observers on elections in Azerbaijan are generally closer to the conclusions of representatives from the CIS countries loyal to the local authorities, than to the critical stance of U.S. and EU monitors.
The above divergence of interests between Turkey and Azerbaijan and some difficulties in the relationship between their leaders are unable to shake loose the strategic partnership of these states, which rests upon a foundation of ethnic and religious affinity and a sense of unity that connects people. According to a survey conducted this year by the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, the people of Turkey feel obvious sympathy not for the NATO allies, but for the Azerbaijanis, who enjoy the trust of 82 percent of respondents. A similar ratio is observed in Azerbaijan. According to the monitoring of the public opinion that the pollster Puls-R has held regularly for many years under the guidance of the author of this article, 80 to 90 percent of the respondents called Turkey the most friendly country.
BAKU AND MOSCOW: A TWISTY PATH OF CONVERGENCE
According to the same survey, Russia has always ranked second on the list of the countries most friendly to Azerbaijan. But its rating is much more modest than that of Turkey, it fluctuates from year to year within a range of 17 to 25 percent. At the same time, 10-15 percent of the respondents see the Russian Federation as an unfriendly state. Both likes and dislikes are a product of history and of the relations that took shape after the restoration of independence.
The two centuries of existence within a single state has tied Azerbaijan and Russia with thousands of bonds. The collapse of the Soviet Union disrupted many of them, especially those in industrial cooperation, but even today the two countries are foreign trade partners of great importance to each other. Bilateral trade in 2010 amounted to 1.8 billion dollars (showing a steep decline due to the crisis from a record of 2.4 billion dollars in 2009). Import from Russia amounted to 1.56 billion dollars (first place among Azerbaijan’s foreign trade partners), and exports from Azerbaijan to Russia – to 385.6 million (an increase by 23.8 percent). Gas supplies from Azerbaijan to Russia, which this year will exceed one billion cubic meters, will ease the trade imbalance somewhat. In 2011, the volume of trade should reach 2.7 billion dollars.
In Azerbaijan there remains the largest Russian community in the South Caucasus, which numbers about 160-170 thousand. In turn, the number of Azerbaijanis living in Russia on a temporary or permanent basis has reached one million, and according to unofficial estimates, two million. Among them there are big businessmen with multimillion fortunes.
Azerbaijan has preserved a habitat of Russian language and culture that is the biggest in the South Caucasus. More than 200 secondary schools and most universities have a Russian language department or offer instruction in the Russian language. About 6,000 citizens of Azerbaijan study at Russian universities: 800- 900 students under government programs, and the others, on their own. In Azerbaijan, there are published dozens of newspapers and magazines in Russian. The country has a Russian Drama Theater and a Russian Cultural Center.
In contrast to the economic and cultural ties, the political and military relations between Baku and Moscow manifest problems and significantly diverging interests. Some of them emerged when Russia, by virtue of its imperial and Soviet past, treated the sovereignty of Azerbaijan, as well as that of other CIS countries, as something defective. The newly independent states, of course, sought to develop their own economic and military-political relations with the world and regional powers, which was perceived by Moscow as a gesture of ingratitude and disloyalty. And in Baku and the other capitals of newly independent states such a reaction from Moscow was taken as a manifestation of arrogance and a policy of diktat, and caused rejection.
An additional irritant cropped up when in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh Moscow supported Armenia and provided not only political and economic assistance, but also military support. Subsequently Russia corrected the imbalance somewhat, taking on a mediation mission in an effort to end the hostilities and bring about a peace settlement of the conflict. However, the alliance of Moscow and Yerevan and the presence of Russian military bases in Armenia continued to arouse suspicion in Azerbaijan, and a lack of certainty about the true intentions of Moscow and the impartiality of its mediation.
Initially, there were substantial differences between Azerbaijan and Russia over the Caspian Sea. Moscow strongly opposed Baku’s intention to proceed, with assistance from Western companies, with projects to develop offshore fields and lay pipelines to transport fuels in bypass of its territory. However, even on that issue a compromise was achieved. The Russian concern LUKOIL was allowed to take a 10-percent stake in the large-scale projects Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli and Shah Deniz. Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have now agreed on the delimitation of national sectors according the so-called modified median line and taken a consolidated position on the status of the Caspian Sea.
Positive changes have taken place in the Karabakh settlement process. The breakup of relations between Georgia and Russia left the Russian military base in Gyumri cut off from sources of supply. For retaining its positions in the South Caucasus and opening a corridor to Armenia, Moscow needs to set the settlement process in motion and thus strengthen its own geopolitical position. After signing the Meyendorff Declaration Russia assumed the role of the chief moderator of the negotiating process with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan on the Karabakh settlement. Over the past three years, eight meetings in the trilateral format have been held, with President Dmitry Medvedev taking part. Moscow declares readiness to exert a determined effort in order to win the conflicting parties’ approval of the so-called Madrid principles and achieve the adoption of a decision to start work on a framework peace agreement.
But the main problem that all co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, and especially the Russian leadership, have to address is to prevent a new war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Indeed, with the current level of armaments available to both parties it would be not just destructive and sanguinary, but also fraught with the risk of a large-scale regional conflict and the possibility of a confrontation between Russia and Turkey, which is certainly not what Ankara and Moscow would favor.
MOSCOW AND ANKARA: PROMISING PROSPECTS
The gigantic geopolitical shifts that occurred as a result of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact have significantly changed the climate between Ankara and Moscow, as well as the two capitals’ attitude to the republics of the South Caucasus that have restored their independence. The bloc-to-bloc confrontation, in which Turkey was assigned the role of a frontline state, came to an end two decades ago. The top leaderships of both nations have been having an intensive confidential dialogue, and trading and economic relations and humanitarian contacts have been growing rapidly.
Russia has become a major trading partner of Turkey, and Turkey, fifth largest trading partner of Russia. Turkey buys from Russia up to a quarter of all oil that it consumes and more than half of the amount of natural gas it needs. Mutual investment is growing. Millions of Russian tourists spend vacations at seaside resorts of Antalya and Bodrum every year. All of this was a good reason for Dmitry Medvedev to declare that “Russia and Turkey are strategic partners.” In turn, Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked: “The Russian-Turkish dialogue has the ability to positively influence peace and security in the region.”
In a sense both countries have found themselves on the sidelines of post-industrial development, and both equally feel the smug egotism of the West. They face similar challenges in many respects: chase-the-wind modernization and economic development and the ambiguity of their Eurasian position, that is, duality of their cultural and geopolitical matrices. Both Turkey and Russia are faced with the challenge of strengthening democratic institutions and neutralizing ethnic separatism.
Moscow and Ankara are unhappy the United States and the leading Western countries view them as instruments of their global policies and are not too inclined to respect their national interests and aspirations. Re-emergence of Russia and Turkey in their former status of great powers is by no means on the agenda of the liberal West. The campaign for the recognition of the so-called Armenian genocide, indirect support for Kurdish separatism and the delay in Turkey’s accession to the EU fit in well with this scheme. Russia is not a very welcome guest in Brussels, either.
A full-fledged strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey requires that solutions be found to existing regional problems, which, if left unattended, will not only escalate and jeopardize peace and security in the region, but also drag Moscow and Ankara into a dangerous confrontation. This would be the most undesirable scenario for Russian-Turkish relations to follow, because in that sort of competition that the EU and the U.S. have inconspicuously been pushing Moscow and Ankara into the rivals’ strength will be waning, and not multiplying.
In Turkey, there is an understanding of this. On the eve of the parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 12, 2011 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who heads the ruling Justice and Development Party, announced the election platform. It is noteworthy that there is a special section in it entitled “Turkey – Russia and the Caucasus.” In other worlds, Ankara considers its relations with countries and peoples of the Caucasus in conjunction with Russia. It was stated that the development of Turkish-Russian relations would lay a new framework for cooperation in the Caucasus, Central Asia and other regions.
Tbilisi has been watching the maturing of Russian-Turkish strategic partnership with little enthusiasm, and Yerevan, with undisguised anxiety, even hostility. After all, the external and partly economic policies of these countries are based on the use of conflicts and rivalry between the West and Russia and Turkey and Russia. They have learned how to skillfully extract dividends. As soon as the contradictions weaken, the “outposts” and “beacons of democracy” lose value. Baku’s attitude to the deepening of Turkish-Russian cooperation is different. Unlike its neighbors in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan had no gains from Russian-Turkish rivalry, while its losses were quite obvious. A natural ally of Ankara by virtue of ethnic, historical, cultural and religious factors, Baku was sometimes confronted with a suspicious and sometimes repressive attitude of Moscow. The warming in Russia-Turkey relations relieves Baku of the need to make a difficult choice between two indispensable partners, which can create conditions for progress in resolving long-standing conflicts, and especially that over Karabakh.
Azerbaijan as a country with significant natural and financial resources and a favorable geographical position has a great deal to offer to both Turkey and Russia. In order to implement its own large-scale projects Baku needs peace, cooperation and normal competition, based on the diversification of economic attractiveness and effectiveness. The laying of strategic oil and gas pipelines through Georgia and Turkey ended Azerbaijan’s one-sided dependence on Russia. But now the pipeline system, built back in the Soviet era to connect Azerbaijan with Russia and Iran, allows for diversifying energy supplies to the mutual benefit of all parties. Substantial financial resources from export, knowledge and the ability to find bearings on the Turkish and Russian markets gives Azerbaijani businesses a great competitive edge in arranging for and implementing major trilateral projects in the transportation and processing of hydrocarbons and petrochemical industry, as well as in tourism, transport and communications.
Partnership between Russia and Turkey does not mean a split of the South Caucasus into spheres of influence. In the context of globalization such plans, even if they are devised by some, will be doomed to failure. It will be beyond the powers of Russia and Turkey to lock the region away from the world. But together the countries will be able to prevent the South Caucasus from being turned into a geopolitical playground for outsiders.