On November 5 the newly elected president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, paid a three-day visit to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. It was his first visit to a foreign country as president, and the choice of Baku for such a symbolic trip is likely an attempt by the Turkish leaders to show that Azerbaijan still remains a top foreign policy issue for Ankara.
Gul brought a large delegation with him, including a number of ministers, members of parliament, and a group of businessmen. They met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Speaker of Parliament Ogtay Asadov, the head of the religious-spiritual board, Allahshukur Pashazadeh, and several other officials. They discussed a wide range of issues in these bilateral meetings. Both presidents stressed the high level of relations that exist between Azerbaijan and Turkey and pledged to further strengthen this bilateral brotherhood.
“I feel myself like at home here,” Gul commented. “Azerbaijan’s success is Turkey’s success. We are sincerely happy to see a progressing, powerful, and developing Azerbaijan,” said Gul at the meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart. Gul also paid a visit to Ganja, the second-largest city in the country, located close to territories occupied by Armenia.
The second day of the trip featured a business forum that addressed trade relations and bilateral economic projects. Gul noted diplomatically, “There are no problems for Turkish businessmen in Azerbaijan” (Day.az, November 6). Everyone, however, understood that this was a wishful message, because Turkish businessmen do indeed experience various problems with the local authorities, such as difficulties getting exports through border checks, tax hardships, and even problems with the local monopolies. Gul offered to start a visa-free regime between the two countries (APA, November 6).
Turkey remains one of Azerbaijan’s largest trade partners, constituting 10.9% of the overall trade (around $700 million), trailing only Italy (17.6%), which is the largest consumer of Azerbaijani oil, and Russia (16.5%). In terms of exports, Turkey ranks second, after Italy (APA Economics, June 27). During earlier visits by the Turkish officials, both governments pledged to raise trade turnover to reach $1 billion.
Of all the issues discussed between Gul and Azerbaijani officials, the most urgent was the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and securing Azerbaijan’s support for the Turkish anti-terrorist military operations in northern Iraq. In fact, the PKK issue was raised even before Gul’s visit. On November 3 the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party (YAP) organized a roundtable for the senior-ranking members of the party. Participants discussed the current situation in northern Iraq and concluded that Azerbaijan should and would stand shoulder to shoulder with its Turkish brothers. “The PKK is a terrorist organization, and Azerbaijan is ready to offer all kinds of political and material support to Turkey in its anti-terror operations against the PKK. We are seriously concerned about the activities of the PKK against the Turkish people,” said Ali Ahmadov, the deputy chairman and executive secretary of YAP (Trend, November 3).
The Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan also raised this issue prior to Gul’s visit. Ministry spokesman Khazar Ibrahim reminded, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly declared the PKK to be a terrorist organization.” In parliament, the speaker showed rare solidarity with the opposition MPs when he accepted a proposal by opposition deputy Panah Huseyn to officially recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization (Yeni Musavat, November 4).
Even during one-on-one talks with President Aliyev, both heads of state returned to this issue. It is not clear how comparatively small Azerbaijan can help the powerful Turkish army with anti-PKK operations, but local newspapers and pundits were full of speculation that several powerful ministers in Azerbaijan may have had a role in financing the Kurdish armed groups. These allegations existed many years ago and were recently resurrected. Opposition newspapers have also written extensively about the alleged settlement of Kurdish families on the territory of Azerbaijan, especially in the Nakhichevan exclave.
Gul’s visit and his continuous emphasis on the PKK issue may be directed at such speculation and designed to minimize Azerbaijan’s support for the PKK, if the allegations are true. The PKK issue is also a factor in the security of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which passes near the turbulent Kurdish areas. While in Baku, Gul stressed that the pipeline is fully secured the Turkish law-enforcement bodies.
Other issues discussed include Azerbaijan’s support for the separatist Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey’s continued embargo on trade with Armenia until Yerevan liberates the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Gul also touched upon the issue of democratic development in Azerbaijan, expressing his assurances that “very soon democracy in Azerbaijan will reach European standards” (Day.az, November 7). Five documents on bilateral cooperation were signed during the visit.
Overall, Azerbaijan and Turkey continue to enjoy strong, friendly relations, but these relations are much more pragmatic than in 1990s. Baku’s growing oil revenues make the country increasingly confident and less dependant on foreign aid. However, Turkey’s focus under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been on EU integration, leaving the Caucasus and Central Asia as a lower foreign policy priority. The ideas of pan-Turkism and Turkish brotherhood have long faded away, being replaced with cordial and pragmatic relations. Both governments prefer to respect each other and coordinate on foreign policy issues, but not to scarify its own national interests.