Wikileaks Perturb US-Azerbaijan Relations (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 217

Perhaps more than the WikiLeaks themselves, it is the massive security breach and counterintelligence failure that will, for some time to come, discourage candid conversations between the US government and some of its key partners.

Azerbaijan is no exception in this regard. In Azerbaijan’s case, however, the WikiLeaks compound the damage already inflicted by the Obama administration’s failure to capitalize on this strategic partnership. Lacking a regional strategy in the South Caucasus, and bereft of an ambassador in Baku for a year and a half, Washington has turned its relationship with Baku into a roller coaster during this period. The US State Department material disseminated through the WikiLeaks thus far will complicate Azerbaijan’s relations with Turkey, Iran, and Russia (; New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, November 28 – December 3).

Based on the WikiLeaks, mass media in Turkey are blaming Azerbaijan for its alleged opposition to Turkey becoming an energy transit country. Turkish liberal-leaning as well as pro-government newspapers describe Azerbaijan’s position as a “betrayal,” or a “stab in the back” of Turkey by an “ungrateful” Azerbaijan. As a corollary, they call for retaliating against Azerbaijan by accelerating the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement, in the absence of any progress on resolving the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. This view may influence enough Turkish parliamentarians to provide the Turkish government with an excuse to pursue such a rapprochement unilaterally, de-linked from the Karabakh conflict, and isolating Azerbaijan (Zaman, Hurriyet, Radikal, November 30 – December 3).

This view is based on misunderstanding the February 25, 2010 report from the US charge d’affaires in Baku, as disseminated by WikiLeaks. That report cites Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev as explaining to US Under-Secretary of State William Burns in Baku that Turkey can not become a “gas hub” at the expense of Azerbaijani gas. “Gas hub,” however, is not the same as gas transit country. A hub country buys another country’s gas, stores it and re-sells it as its own gas to third countries at a higher price. A transit country, however, provides transit service through pipelines on its territory for an agreed (cost-based) fee, enabling the producer country to enter into direct commercial relations with the customers for its gas. Azerbaijan seeks direct contact with European customers for its gas through transit arrangements via Turkey. The European Union supports Azerbaijan’s position, in line with EU practice. During the last few years, the Turkish government sought to turn Turkey into an “energy hub” country, e.g. at the expense of Azerbaijani gas, apparently on a vague understanding of this concept.

This issue seems to have been laid to rest, however, with the signing of the July 2009 Nabucco inter-governmental agreement and the June 2010 Turkey-Azerbaijan transit agreement in June 2010. In the same February 25, 2010 US report, moreover, President Aliyev is cited as telling Under-Secretary Burns that it is imperative to reach agreement in 2011 on Phase Two of production at Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz gas field. That production is pre-designated to reach Europe via Turkey (whether through Nabucco or other Southern Corridor pipeline options via Turkey). Moreover, Azerbaijan relies on Turkey for oil export through the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, by Azerbaijan’s own choice. In line with EU-promoted diversification policies, however, Azerbaijan would “not put all its eggs into one [Turkish] basket” with either oil or gas exports. Azerbaijan has played the key role in turning Turkey into an energy transit country; and it can further increase Turkey’s role in that regard if the new projects materialize in the years ahead as planned. Turkish editorialists’ indignation with Azerbaijan on this score seems gratuitous, and a poor excuse for breaking ranks with Azerbaijan over Karabakh as suggested.

The WikiLeaks cast some fresh light on the Obama administration’s push for re-opening the Turkey-Armenia border, without linkage to the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani districts around Upper Karabakh. The administration seeks to cajole Turkey into re-opening that border, in return for Armenian and Congressional tranquillity on the annual April 24 Remembrance Day, so as to spare Washington and Ankara this annual political drama. Azerbaijan, losing its main peaceful leverage in the negotiations with Armenia, would be forced into Russia’s arms; while Turkey would lose its most reliable regional partner without gaining anything remotely comparable. This helps explain President Aliyev’s remark to Under-Secretary Burns that every year, “April 24 hangs like a Sword of Damocles over our heads” (State Department cable, February 25, 2010,

The Zurich protocols of October 10, 2009, envisage re-opening the Turkey-Armenia border, no longer linked with the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijan’s interior districts. Instead, the trade-off involves removing the Armenian genocide recognition from US domestic politics, while preserving the US Armenian vote for the Democratic Party thanks to the border-opening. Signed at US insistence by the Turkish and Armenian presidents, and subject to parliamentary ratification, the protocols were repudiated de facto by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyp Erdogan in December 2009, and practically voided by the Armenian Constitutional Court’s January 2010 interpretive verdict. Ankara reinstated the linkage between re-opening the border and the withdrawal of Armenian troops; while Yerevan reserved the right (seen as obligation) to pursue the genocide recognition campaign internationally, including in the United States. Nevertheless, the US pressed with disproportionate force in Ankara for Turkish ratification of the protocols.

According to the WikiLeaks material, US Ambassador James Jeffrey asked the Turkish government on January 20, 2010 to support Washington regarding sanctions against Iran, the deployment of a missile defense shield in Turkey, and other strategic issues. “This will have a profound effect on relations, second only to the fate of the [Turkish-] Armenian protocols over the next year.” Thus, at that juncture (and apparently with an eye to April 24), rescuing the protocols seemed to outrank the strategic issues on the list of US policy priorities with Turkey. On February 18, 2010, nevertheless, senior Turkish diplomat Fuad Sinirlioglu told Burns in Washington that re-opening the Turkey-Armenia border and settling the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict must proceed “in simultaneity.”

Sinirlioglu also cited the “strong reaction” among the ruling AKP party’s deputies, not only among the opposition parties, to de-linking border-opening from conflict-resolution (State Department cables, January 20, February 18, 2010,

The Turkish government and, more recently, even President Abdullah Gul as co-signatory of the Zuerich protocols have consistently reaffirmed that linkage. This situation illustrates Washington’s diminishing leverage with Ankara, along with the State Department’s need of graceful exit from the Zuerich protocols’ dead end.