Recent weeks have seen unprecedented and potentially far reaching damage to the Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership. Ever since Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced its intension to normalize relations with Azerbaijan’s arch-rival Armenia, the relationship between Ankara and Baku has cooled. The Azerbaijani leadership sent a strong message to Ankara in April, when President Ilham Aliyev refused to accept Turkish President Abdulah Gul’s invitation to attend the U.N. conference “Alliance of civilizations,” held in Istanbul.
Yet, it was after the signing of the protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia that Baku’s outrage spiraled. Both the Azerbaijani public and its political leadership openly condemned this one-sided Turkish policy. Indeed, the Azeri foreign ministry immediately issued a press release in which it said that the signing of the protocols “directly contradicts the national interests of Azerbaijan and overshadows the spirit of brotherly relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey built on deep historical roots” (www.mfa.gov.az, October 12).
That apparent cooling of the bilateral relationship, moved toward a cold war when Azerbaijani flags were banned during the Turkish-Armenian soccer match in Bursa on October 14 and Azerbaijani media outlets broadcast images of the Azerbaijani flag being torn apart and thrown into trash bins by Turkish police officers. In addition, the Azeri public was outraged by reports that the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, whom Azerbaijanis view as one of the main organizers of the Khojali massacre in 1992, was warmly embraced by President Gul and his wife during the soccer match. Gul’s wife, reportedly, even cooked for Sargsyan and Gul offered his bedroom to his Armenian counterpart.
Such news has caused deep anti-Turkish sentiments to flourish in Baku. Traditionally an ally, brother and last resort of hope, Turkey is no longer trusted in the Azerbaijani capital. In an effort to gain an additional friendly neighbor, Ankara seems to have overstretched and nearly ruined its strategic relations with Azerbaijan.
The reaction in Baku was swift. Turkish flags, hanging in the memorial for martyred Turkish soldiers, were lowered. Youth groups and opposition parties lashed out at the Turkish leadership for the humiliation and disrespect shown to the Azerbaijani flag in Bursa. And parliament held heated debates about the “flag incident,” during which Vice-Speaker Ziyafat Asgarov said, “I take the disrespect shown against the Azerbaijani flag as a personal insult” (AZTV, October 16).
Moreover, on October 16 Aliyev announced during his cabinet meeting that Azerbaijan would consider alternative options to export its gas, since Turkish-Azerbaijani talks on gas transit have not produced concrete results (www.day.az, October 16). He accused Turkey of stalling these negotiations by offering unacceptably low prices for Azerbaijani gas and did not hesitate to mention that until now, Azerbaijan has been selling natural gas to Turkey at 30 percent of its value on international markets. Aliyev also mentioned Russia, Iran and the Black sea as alternatives routes for Azeri gas and coincidently, in the same week, Gazprom and Azerbaijan’s State Oil Company SOCAR signed an agreement in Baku for the export of 500 million cubic meters of Azeri gas to Russia at the price Aliyev described as “mutually beneficial” (Trend News Agency, October 16).
It is clear that the recent developments in the South Caucasus and the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement have seriously damaged the Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership. This partnership has been the backbone of East-West energy and its future transportation corridors, security, political and geostrategic balance in the region as well as the overall Turkish (or Western) entrance into the Caspian region. Without this strategic partnership, the Turkish, E.U. and U.S. axis of influence in the South Caucasus and further into the Central Asian region is at risk. This geopolitical miscalculation on the part of Turkish, E.U. and U.S. officials, all of whom have actively pushed for a one-sided normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations without the consideration of Azerbaijan’s interests and the resolution of the Karabakh conflict will see a boomerang effect.
Russia may utilize this excellent opportunity to further advance its political agenda in the region: the isolation of Georgia by cutting it off from new transit routes; shelving the E.U. and U.S.-backed Nabucco gas pipeline project by destroying the Azerbaijani-Turkish strategic partnership and thus forcing Azerbaijan to sell its gas to Russia; drawing Turkey into its own orbit of influence undermining the E.U.-U.S.-Turkey axis of influence in the region. Before Washington realizes, it will be too late to protect the South Caucasus as a sovereign and independent region. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. appears to underestimate what is unfolding in the region. A lack of clear vision on the part of the U.S. administration clearly plays into Russian hands. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov so actively pushed his Armenian counterpart to sign the protocol with Turkey.