Turkey’s new president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, chose Azerbaijan for his first official visit abroad in that capacity in heading a massive Turkish governmental and business delegation to Baku on July 11-12. Sezer’s statements during the visit did reaffirmed the Turkish-Azerbaijani “special relationship,” built in recent years by Presidents Suleyman Demirel and Haidar Aliev. The recent end of Demirel’s seven-year term was accompanied by questions regarding the continuity of that relationship. Sezer’s visit served to dispel those concerns. It even suggested–according to Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ismail Cem–that “the relationship is being institutionalized.” The delegation, furthermore, paid respects at the graves of Turkish soldiers killed in Azerbaijan in 1918 and of Azeris killed in Baku in 1990 by Soviet troops. Those ceremonies seemed intended not only as a symbolic backdrop to the visit but also as a part of its political message.
Sezer confirmed Ankara’s support for both aspects of Baku’s position on Karabakh–namely, return of the “occupied territories” and the use of political-diplomatic means only. By placing the emphasis on the latter, Sezer distanced Ankara from those Azerbaijani nationalist opposition groups which openly discuss the possibility of resorting to force. Azerbaijan’s former president and current leader of the Popular Front, Abulfaz Elchibey, with his penchant for such rhetoric, is currently undergoing medical treatment in Turkey, where he finds favor mainly with the Nationalist Action Party. Just before Sezer’s visit, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit reaffirmed the Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan on Karabakh in the semi-qualified terms Sezer used.
In Baku, Sezer declined to meet with any of the opposition leaders, including those in the Popular Front who are at odds with Elchibey. These signals appeared designed to reinforce the position of the presidential camp in advance of the parliamentary elections which are due this autumn.
Yet the special relationship is not without its share of problems. The Turkish side complained yet again that official corruption and red tape in Azerbaijan discourage Turkish investment–a complaint which more than a few Western businessmen have also made. Shortly before Sezer’s visit, a senior Azerbaijani customs official created a stir by replying, “good riddance,” when it was pointed out to him that Turkish businessmen had left Azerbaijan in droves and were not returning because of official corruption. Sezer urged Aliev and the parliament in Baku to pass long-overdue legislation on foreign trade, investment, credit and banking.
While the sides see eye to eye on the plan to lay the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil export pipeline, differences emerged over the planned trans-Caspian pipeline for the export of Turkmen gas. That project is currently at a standstill due to Turkmen President Saparmurat Niazov’s erratic reactions to the Bechtel-General/Electric-Shell consortium’s proposals. Azerbaijan is impatient to start work on an export pipeline which would bring its own gas from the Shah-Deniz field via Georgia to Turkey. An immediate start might, however, lock Turkmenistan out of the lucrative Turkish market, dooming Ashgabat to dependence on Moscow for gas exports. The Turkish government, in common with Washington and the consortium, are willing to give Niazov a chance to reconsider and Turkmenistan the chance to develop (Turan, ANS, Turkish Daily News, Anatolia Agency, Dow-Jones Newswires, July 11- 13).
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