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Turkey, Azerbaijan Increase Cooperation

March 21, 2012

Dorian Jones | Istanbul

Turkey and its neighbor, Azerbaijan, are increasing diplomatic and economic cooperation following the collapse of rapprochement efforts between Turkey and Azerbaijan's rival, Armenia. Turkey is increasingly aligning itself with its Azerbaijani neighbor.


Senior Turkish government ministers have been visiting Azerbaijan to offer support to Baku in its efforts to reclaim the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The majority ethnic Armenian territory declared independence in 1988, triggering a six-year conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that claimed 35,000 lives. The war ended in a cease-fire in 1994, and repeated international efforts to broker a peace deal have failed.

At an event in Istanbul last month commemorating the killing of 603 Azeris in the village of Khojaly during the conflict in 1992, Turkish Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin delivered a passionate speech.

"As long as the Turkish nation stays alive, " Sahin said, "that blood will be answered for."

The commemoration drew thousands of Turkish nationalists as well as Azerbaijanis, many holding banners reading "one people, two states." Strong anti-Armenian sentiments were also a prominent feature of the event.

Foreign policy shift

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University says the fact that the Turkish interior minister attended the event, and the language he used in his speech, are significant indicators of a major shift in Turkish foreign policy.

"It's a key moment, it's an extremely important development; I don't recall anything of the kind [in] the last 10 years in Turkey. Azerbaijan [is] fully back in the picture, forcefully back in the Turkish political life," Aktar said. Turkey has completely yielded its Armenia and Armenian policies to this country [Azerbaijan], [which] apparently now looks as though it's running the show."

Ankara angered Baku in October 2009, when it signed a protocol with Yerevan aimed at restoring diplomatic relations and eventually ending Turkey's economic embargo against Armenia.

Sinan Ulgen, a former senior Turkish diplomat who now heads the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an independent think tank in Istanbul, says Ankara had calculated that improving relations with Yerevan could empower it to help resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. But Ulgen says that in the face of Baku's opposition, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan effectively froze efforts to achieve a rapprochement with Armenia.

"The prime minister chose Baku essentially because of the strength of the nationalist constituency in Turkey, because Turkey traditionally has been and remains a very patriotic country. And there is a strong nationalist constituency, and this is a widespread constituency; it's the grassroots of the ruling party, and many others also belong to that, and Azerbaijan plays that card." Ulgen stated.

Lucrative deals

A U.S. State Department report earlier this year strongly criticized Erdogan for the current deadlock in Turkish-Armenian relations. But Ankara has been handsomely rewarded by Baku. In the past few months, Azerbaijan has signed a series of lucrative deals to supply gas to energy-hungry Turkey, as well as another agreement for Turkey to be a distributor of Azerbaijani energy to the wider region. Ankara is seeking to make Turkey a regional energy hub. The deals also help Ankara move away from energy dependence on Iran, which is facing growing international economic sanctions.

But the former head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry's strategic planning department, Murat Bilhan, warns that despite growing ties, Baku remains suspicious of Ankara. "Relations are not based on confidence, not only because of the Armenian question. Turkey is suspected by the Azerbaijanis [because] Turkey is a Sunni Muslim country, and they are Shi'ites," he explained. "But for certain reasons there are converging interests -- mainly the gas projects. And also we have a railway project bypassing Armenia; that project is still on the table."


But Azerbaijan will also be aware that Turkey has pressing reasons to mend fences with Armenia. Ankara sees rapprochement with Yerevan as key to stemming the persistent calls for Turkey to recognize the mass killings of its Armenian minority during World War I as genocide. Ankara strongly denies the charge, saying the deaths occurred during a civil war.

Former Turkish diplomat Ulgen warns that the controversy is likely to grow "Now we are approaching 2015, which is going to be the centenary of those tragic events. So, again, Turkey has to take stock of that and assess where its own interests lie. But practically what we have seen is that Azerbaijan continues to hold a (blocking vote) -- if not to say a veto -- at this point over Turkish policy," he said.

Just last month, the genocide controversy provoked a diplomatic storm between Turkey and France, after the French parliament passed a law making it a crime to deny the mass killings of Armenians as genocide. Another potential diplomatic storm looms with renewed attempts in the U.S. Senate to recognize the Armenian genocide. But for Ankara, the question of how to build bridges with Yerevan without alienating Baku remains a challenge. Addressing that challenge is expected to become a rising diplomatic priority.

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