Baku Calling for Openness in Turkish-Armenian Relations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 85

Azerbaijan's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Araz Azimov

Most Azerbaijani politicians as well as the general public believe that the recent developments in Turkey’s bilateral relationship with Armenia were aimed only at influencing Barack Obama’s April 24 statement. Supposedly, Turkey wanted to provide a reason for Obama to avoid using the word "genocide" when referring to the events of 1915. Now that Turkey has avoided this potential degradation in its relations with the United States, one of its closest allies, the question remains as to whether Turkey and Armenia will continue taking steps towards each other, or if their declared intention to normalize bilateral relations was only a tactical move.

The government in Azerbaijan is carefully monitoring all the statements coming from both Yerevan and Ankara. It appears that the Turkish government is keen to continue on this track, which raises concerns within Baku. On April 13, a spokesman from Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Elkhan Polukhov, said that "the opening of the border will be a tactical and strategic mistake and will increase the tensions in the region." While the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Araz Azimov, stated four days earlier that, "the opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia is possible in the context of the resolution of Armenian-Azerbaijani Karabakh conflict." Azimov added that the discussions on the issue could be included in the negotiation process on the Karabakh conflict, and that any normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations might occur in phases, in parallel with the liberation of the occupied Azerbaijani territories ( April 8).

Indeed, both the Azerbaijani public and the leadership of the country categorically oppose a one-sided approach to the re-opening the Turkish-Armenian border. Foremost, Baku fears that opening the border will further strengthen Armenia and make it less cooperative in any future negotiations. Until now Azerbaijan had hoped that economics would play a decisive role in compelling Armenia to give up the occupied territories. Regional economic development between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey was often cited as an example of Armenia’s mistaken strategic choice, which led the country into economic and political isolation within the region. Baku hoped that in the longer term, the Armenian government may act in its national interests and prefer economic development rather than political nationalism.

But Turkey’s initiative to normalize its relations with Armenia risks ruining Baku’s strategic planning and brings new uncertainties into the regional dynamics. The Azerbaijani government also fears that the Turkish-Armenian cooperation will alter the fragile balance of power within the region and might even provoke Armenia to pursue further military action.

At the same time, the Turkish-Armenian border issue also has important symbolic meaning. Turkey closed its border at the start of the Karabakh conflict, due to Armenia’s aggression against Azerbaijani territory. Renouncing that symbolic but powerful gesture of support could diminish Turkey’s image within the region. An Azerbaijani Member of Parliament (MP) Sabir Rustamkhanli, told EDM on April 9 that he believed Turkey is being pressured by outside powers to re-open the border with Armenia, because "external forces" wanted to humiliate Turkey and show that it can yield under pressure.

In the aftermath of Obama’s statement on April 24, the Azerbaijani government’s top priority is to foster dialogue with Turkey and ensure that policies are coordinated between the two strategic allies -avoiding any negative consequences to upset their bilateral relations. In this context, Azerbaijani officials have been privately complaining that they lack full information about Turkish intentions, and they fear that details are being deliberately concealed. In fact, the so-called "road map," signed by the Turkish and Armenian Presidents has not been shown to the Azerbaijani authorities. Asim Mollazade, MP and the leader of the Party for Democratic Reforms, expressed his outrage about the confidentiality of the talks between Turkey and Armenia. "We were not informed about these talks. We learned about them from other sources," said Mollazade ( April 30). It is expected that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s forthcoming trip to Baku will address some of these concerns.

On the other hand, Azerbaijani officials recognize that there have been some positive results stemming from these recent developments: the growing interest of the international community in this region and specifically in seeking to find a resolution of the Karabakh conflict, as well as the sudden realization that Azerbaijan and Turkey must constantly work to improve their bilateral relations. Public outreach in this respect is a prerequisite, Azerbaijani officials believe. In mid-April a group of Azerbaijani parliamentarians traveled to Turkey to deliver this message from Azerbaijan. A similar message was conveyed by Turkish parliamentarians in Baku. Both countries will increase their public diplomacy in order to avoid any future misunderstandings similar to those experienced in relation to the anxiety triggered over Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.