BACKGROUND: Relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan have remained strong for decades. The two countries share cultural, religious, and ethnic ties (Azeris are a Turkic people). Many people of both nations colloquially refer to Azerbaijan and Turkey as "one nationality and two governments," reflecting the deep connection that has been encouraged by various Turkish governments and nongovernmental organizations. Turkey and Azerbaijani diplomats cooperate regarding Armenia, Georgia (reciprocal recognition of territorial integrity), the pipeline transit of oil and gas (which includes Georgia), and other matters.
In December 2010, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a strategic partnership agreement. This accord is especially important to Baku given Azerbaijan’s non-membership in NATO, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or any other regional military alliance. Russia has made great exertions since the 2008 Georgian War to strengthen the CSTO, which includes Armenia as well as other former Soviet states. By showing how rapidly the so-called frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union can melt, that war made Azerbaijani threats to use force to recover its lost territories more credible. However, the 2008 conflict also made the prospect of Russian military intervention on Armenia’s behalf more probable. That said, any Turkish government would find it hard to resist supporting Azerbaijan in a renewed war with Armenia, despite the possibility of Russian military intervention on Armenia’s behalf. When Iranian air and navy units violated Azerbaijan’s borders in July 2001, the Turkish air force made a show of force in Baku, leading to the end of Iranian incursions.
Turkey has long supplied arms and other military assistance to Azerbaijan. Dozens of Azerbaijani peacekeeping troops served under Turkish command in Kosovo. More recently, Turkish and Azerbaijani companies have begun co-producing military equipment. Turkey has a modest military training program in Azerbaijan, which has proven valuable given that U.S. and other foreign sanctions have limited the level of defense cooperation Azerbaijan enjoys with the United States and other Western militaries.
Thanks to their energy partnership, Turkey and Azerbaijan have good economic ties, with growing levels of trade and mutual investment. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that runs from Azerbaijan to Europe (circumventing Russia and Armenia) has conveyed more than one billion barrels of oil into Europe since it was finished in 2007. The two countries are now finalizing plans to create a parallel gas pipeline and a Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which will further reduce both countries’ economic dependence on Russia.
The most serious source of tension between Azerbaijan and Turkey in recent years has been Turkish efforts to reconcile with Armenia. Following a year of “football diplomacy,” bolstered by European and U.S. support, Armenia and Turkey signed protocols in 2009 designed to re-open their common border, normalize diplomatic relations, and eliminate other tensions between the two countries.
Although Western NGOs argued that the reconciliation could help Azerbaijan by enhancing Turkey’s long-term influence in Armenia as well as encouraging greater regional trade and investment, many Azerbaijanis joined skeptical Turks in considering the initiative at best counterproductive since it could reduce Armenia’s near-term incentive to compromise on the occupied territories [see Turkey Analyst, 12 April 2010]. The explosion of the 2008 Georgia War had intensified concerns that a more direct approach to resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict was needed before it suddenly unfroze.
In any case, the initial enthusiasm in Ankara and Yerevan for the accords waned as the ratification process became bogged down in the Turkish parliament and the Armenian judicial system. To bolster his nationalist credentials, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian adopted a harder line toward Azerbaijan to compensate his softer stance toward Turkey.
Azerbaijani threats to curtail gas shipments to Turkey, widespread sympathy for Azerbaijanis in Turkey, the failure of the reconciliation efforts to discourage continued demands for Armenian genocide recognition, the unwillingness of Washington or Moscow to engage in any heavy lifting to resolve Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions, and Armenia’s refusal to make even a symbolic territorial withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani lands reinforced the Turkish parliament’s reluctance to ratify the protocols until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved.
IMPLICATIONS: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President İlham Aliyev both attended the second session of the Azerbaijan-Turkey High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council in Gabala, in northwestern Azerbaijan. The two governments signed eight official documents, including agreements on academic cooperation, media relations, transportation, and diplomatic exchanges. They then held a joint cabinet meeting—which included their foreign and defense ministers—to discuss additional areas of potential Turkish-Azerbaijani collaboration. The first such Cooperation Council meeting occurred on October 25, 2011, in the Turkish city of İzmir.
The improved relations are also evident in reduced Turkish-Azerbaijani differences over the price of natural gas Azerbaijan wants Turkey to pay as well as a new agreement through which Azerbaijani gas would reach Europe by transiting Turkish territory. Turkey imports more than six billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas from Azerbaijan annually. Azerbaijani gas exports to Europe are expected to soar after the second phase of the Shah Deniz deposit in the Caspian Sea, operated by BP and Statoil, comes online between 2014 and 2017. Shah Deniz II will produce an additional 16 bcm yearly, a significant increase from Shah Deniz I’s current output of 9-10 bcm.
The increased flow of Azerbaijani gas could finally make the long-delayed Nabucco pipeline a viable project. The pipeline aims to transport up to 31 bcm of gas annually from the Caspian region to an Austrian hub via Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Hungary. On June 26, Erdoğan and Aliyev met in Istanbul and signed a contract to build a Trans-Anatolian (TANAP) pipeline that can feed Nabucco as well as increase gas flows to Turkey. TANAP’s construction is scheduled to last from 2014 to 2018, at a cost of roughly $7 billion. The previous December, Azerbaijan and Turkey agreed to form a consortium to build a gas pipeline to supply gas from Shah Deniz to Europe through Turkish territory. Turkey’s BOTAS has a 20 percent stake in TANAP, while the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) has an 80 percent share. The initial capacity of the pipeline is expected to reach 16 bcm annually, but this figure could double. Turkey would like to receive 6-7 bcm of gas from Shah Deniz II for its own domestic use, effectively doubling its annual imports from Azerbaijan and allowing Turkey to reduce its dependence on Russian gas imports. Gazprom pressured the two governments to avoid signing the TANAP contract for this reason. The increased energy flows should help raise bilateral trade levels.
Turkmenistan’s participation is also under discussion. If Turkmenistan were to join TANAP, it would strengthen Turkey’s tenuous ties with Turkmenistan and help resolve longstanding tensions between Baku and Ashgabat, who have contested over ownership of three Caspian oilfields since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The latest dispute occurred in June 2012, when the Azerbaijani Coast Guard found a seismic-sweeping vessel belonging to Turkmenistan exploring the Kyapaz-Serdar field, to which both Baku and Ashgabat claim exclusive rights.
During his two-day visit to Azerbaijan, Erdoğan again pledged that an AKP government would never open its borders with Armenia until the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is resolved. Erdoğan also said that bilateral trade turnover between the two countries had now reached $3.5 billion. “Naturally we are not satisfied with this,” he told the press, “and for a short time we will bring this figure up to $5 bn. In addition to Gabala, Erdoğan also visited the city of Shaki. Both sides professed to be pleased with the results of the talks, which also covered regional security issues such as Iran and Armenia, though Turkey was unable to secure Azerbaijan’s consent to a visa-free travel regime for citizens of either country visiting the other.
Turkey allows Azerbaijani citizens to enter its country without a visa, but Azerbaijan refuses to reciprocate since Baku would then feel obliged to offer the same privilege to Iran; otherwise Tehran will deny Azerbaijan use of Iranian territory to communicate with its separated region of Nakhichevan. Furthermore, the Azerbaijani security services have detected repeated Iranian efforts to infiltrate spies into Azerbaijan, some of whom have then allegedly sought to establish pro-Iranian cells in Azerbaijan or attack Israeli and Western targets in Azerbaijan.
Despite periodic war scares, Baku has sought to dampen tensions with Tehran even while quietly soliciting Turkish, Israeli, and other foreign support against Iran. Turkey’s close ties with Azerbaijan have at times strained ties with Tehran, which worries that the two countries are encouraging separatist sentiments among Iran’s large Azeri minority. It is hard to keep Turkish support for Azeri culture and nationalism in Azerbaijan from having any impact among Iran’s Azeris, though neither Ankara nor Baku formally support Iranian Azeri separatism.
CONCLUSIONS: The AKP had sought to improve Ankara’s relations with Armenia, Iran, and Syria. Azerbaijani lobbying, threats to curtail gas deliveries, and Armenia’s refusal to return Azerbaijani occupied lands blocked this process.
In addition to reaffirming “the resilience of nationalist sentiment and traditional allegiances” [see Turkey Analyst, 15 March 2010], the recent Turkish-Azerbaijani summit provides yet another example of how the ruling AKP is reverting to Turkey’s traditional historical alignments, after having sought to have “zero problems” with traditional foes Armenia and Syria. The renewal of the traditional partnership with Azerbaijan fits into a bigger picture, as Turkey has also strengthened its ties to NATO and the United States.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".