Implications of Ilham Aliyev’s Visit to Turkey

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 212

Presidents Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan with Abdullah Gul of Turkey (Source: mfa.gov.tr)

Following his re-election on October 9, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s first official foreign visit was to Turkey. During the November 12–13 visit, Aliyev met with Turkish President Abdulla Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the chairman of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, Cemil Cicek. President Gul awarded his Azerbaijani counterpart the State Medal of Honor, and Aliyev reciprocated by also awarding the State Medal of Honor to the Turkish head of state. In addition to visiting the Turkish Aerospace Industries, Presidents Gul and Aliyev held the third meeting of the High Level Strategic Cooperation Council, during which time, Turkey and Azerbaijan signed seven agreements (http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkiye-cumhuriyeti-ile-azerbaycan-cumhuriyeti-arasinda-13-kasim-2013-tarihinde-duzenlenen-yuksek-duzeyli-stratejik-isbirligi-ko.tr.mfa).

During a state dinner with Gul, Aliyev emphasized Turkey’s emergence as a world power by proclaiming, “A strong Turkey means a strong Azerbaijan.” He argued that that the 21st century will be the century of the Turkic world and asserted that Azerbaijan and Turkey are leading the way in this direction (tccb.gov.tr, November 12). The expression that the 21st century will be a Turkic century was first uttered by the former president of Turkey, Turgut Ozal, in the early 1990s in his foreign policy overtures toward Azerbaijan and Central Asia. So what does it mean for the leader of Azerbaijan to use this slogan, especially considering that Baku has generally tried to maintain a balance in its foreign policy?

Aliyev’s visit to Turkey occurred against the background of both Azerbaijan and Turkey questioning their relations with the West. In particular, Prime Minister Erdogan has openly suggested that Turkey should join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Russia-led Customs Union (see EDM, July 25, November 8) instead of the EU, and also selected a Chinese company in a tender for air-defense equipment over a Western partner (see EDM, October 25). Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s relations with the West faltered in September 2013, in relation to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s announcement that Yerevan was ready to join the Russia-led Custom Union rather than pursue the Association Agreement with the European Union. Baku believed that Sargsyan’s announcement in favor of the Customs Union over closer ties with Europe would compel Brussels to apply sanctions against Armenia. But the lack of a forceful response from the EU looked to Baku like a European double standard toward Armenia and Azerbaijan—a double standard that Baku also sees being applied by the EU toward the unresolved issue of Karabakh (http://www.aa.com.tr/tr/haberler/246207–yukari-karabagda-cifte-standart-uygulaniyor)

Azerbaijan’s relations with the United States have also experienced increased tension recently. The October 9 presidential elections in Azerbaijan were criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) for failing to reach international standards. And the US State Department’s uncritical acceptance of the ODIHR report (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/10/215283.htm) has soured relations between Washington and Baku. The critical statements by ODIHR and the State Department even inspired a group of Azerbaijani columnists and newspaper editors to write an open letter to President Aliyev asking him not to go to the upcoming EU Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, scheduled for November 28–29. Instead, they suggested the SCO could be a better choice for Azerbaijan (http://www.1news.az/politics/20131018015817874.html).

In contrast to the West’s reaction, Turkish President Gul was one of the first leaders to congratulate President Aliyev on his re-election on October 9. Moreover, Turkish election observers both from the OSCE mission and Turkey’s Parliamentary Assembly submitted positive reports on the Azerbaijani elections, which boosted relations and enhanced bilateral trust between the two countries. Ankara clearly does not want to intervene in the domestic relations of this friendly South Caucasus country. Over the course of Ilham Aliyev’s decade in power, the bilateral relationship has been dominated by strategically important developments including the launching of the Baku-Tbilisi- Erzurum natural gas pipeline (BTE, also known as the South Caucasus Pipeline), the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway signed in 2007, and the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) project signed in 2012. All these projects support Turkey’s strategic role as a bridge between the West and East. Meanwhile Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR has invested $5 billion in Turkey and plans to invest $15–17 billion by 2017 (http://www.socar.com.tr/en/content/ilham-aliyev-president-republic-azerbaijan).

Parallel to Baku’s tension with the West, Russia has made provocative statements about Azerbaijani migrants to Russia and the volatile situation in Karabakh, which some experts have interpreted as pressure on Azerbaijan to join the Custom Union. According to the director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of Azerbaijan, Farhad Mammadov, annually Azerbaijani labor migrants in Russia transfer $1.5 billion in remittances to Azerbaijan. But he notes that these guest workers’ contributions to the Russian economy are arguably even higher, so if they were forced to all return home, it would negatively affect not just Azerbaijan, but the Russian economy as well (http://www.1news.az/politics/20131029030651823.html).

Russia’s second source of pressure on Azerbaijan has consisted of veiled threats about the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Karabakh. After Armenian writer Zori Balayan wrote a letter to the Russian government asking Moscow to unite Karabakh with Russia, Russian Duma deputy Roman Hudyakov echoed the possibility of such a scenario. Then, Andrey Ruzinsky, the commander of Russia’s troops stationed in Armenia, for the first time openly declared that if Azerbaijan tries to restore its jurisdiction over Karabakh by force, personnel from the Russian military base may join in the armed conflict (http://lenta.ru/articles/2013/11/11/takepart/).

Western countries gave no real response to Russian threats. In contrast, the second article of the Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support between Turkey and Azerbaijan, signed on August 16, 2012, dictates that both sides are obligated to assist each other militarily in the event that either one of the sides is attacked or threatened by a third state or group of states (http://www.mediaforum.az/articles.php?lang=az&page=02&article_id=20101215054430699)

Despite the global economic crisis, and amid an eastward shift in the global center of gravity, Turkey and Azerbaijan are continuing their steady growth and are intensifying their mutual relations. Increasingly, Baku and Ankara share an overlapping vision for their region and beyond. And as the recent Azerbaijani-Turkish High level Strategic Cooperation Council has illustrated, the two countries are deepening their commitment to cement their existing strategic partnership with concrete actions.