Turkish-Azerbaijani relations: reality check

By Eladar Mamedov

At the meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, in Astana in December 2010 the presidents of Turkey and Azerbaijan were at pains to downplay the damage that WikiLeaks could cause to the historically close relations between their countries.

The documents released by WikiLeaks contain harsh criticisms of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, by Azerbaijani President ─░lham Aliyev, who reportedly dismissed its foreign policy as being "naive" and a "failure." These revelations merely confirmed an open secret: behind the rhetoric of "one nation, two states," tensions and misunderstandings abound. Yet, if well-handled, the leaks could help to build a healthier and more mature relationship between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

The signing of the Geneva protocols in December 2009 as part of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement was a brusque reality check for Azerbaijanis. This step, taken without meaningful progress in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, was perceived in Baku as a betrayal by its Turkish ally. But contrary to what was believed in Baku, Turks were not selling out their Azerbaijani brothers in order to please the European Union, which they seek to join, or to prevent the United States from officially qualifying the massacres of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide.

Instead, changes in Turkish society over several years, rather than outside pressures, paved the way for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. With democratizing reforms in Turkey, old taboos began to crumble, and for the first time the official line on the events of 1915 began to be challenged. The intellectual debate was joined by vibrant and enriching cultural and artistic exchanges. More people in Turkey started to openly reclaim their Armenian roots. The Armenian question for Turkey became not just a foreign policy issue, but also a question of coming to terms with its own multi-ethnic and multicultural history and identity. Azerbaijanis would be wise to take note of this nuance, and relinquish the expectation that Turkey's policy toward Armenia would forever be conditioned by Azerbaijani interests.

If Azerbaijanis misread the internally-driven nature of the process, Turks failed to assess Azerbaijani concerns realistically. Turkey calculated that increased leverage in the South Caucasus resulting from its deal with Armenia would benefit Azerbaijan. And it was assumed that Baku would follow Ankara's initiative, since Azerbaijan had no closer ally than Turkey anyway. This analysis may have been fundamentally sound, but the AKP government was over-confident in its ability to get Azerbaijanis on board. Self-congratulatory remarks by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto─člu during a visit to Baku in the midst of the protocol saga testify to this. In reality, Azerbaijan had never given any reason to believe that it would welcome Turkey's reconciliation with Armenia, as long as there is no progress on Armenian withdrawal from the occupied Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, the Turkish behavior was seen in Baku as an arrogant attempt to bully Azerbaijan into accepting what was an exclusively Turkish foreign policy interest. The subsequent Azerbaijani threats to halt gas deliveries to Turkey and the signing of important gas deals with Russia was a way of telling Turks that Azerbaijan had more options than unconditionally toeing the Turkish line.

The intensity of the Azerbaijani public reaction to the signing of the protocols revealed something deeper than a diplomatic misunderstanding over Armenia. There is growing resentment in Azerbaijan at the tendency of many Turkish politicians, religious missionaries and businessmen to treat Azerbaijan as an extension of Turkey. While the two countries share a lot in terms of language and culture, Azerbaijanis have their own distinct multi-layered identity, with a strong Iranian, Russian, European and Caucasian heritage that sets it apart from Turkey. What is more, while Azerbaijanis admire Turkey's economic dynamism and military prowess, they also feel their own society is more progressive due to higher literacy rates, more profound secularization and higher levels of female emancipation. They take pride in being the home of the first secular democratic republic, first theater play and first opera in the Muslim world – these facts are indispensable for understanding their self-perception. In this context, any pretence of a patronizing attitude from "big brother" Turkey goes down predictably badly.

The different nature of the political regimes in both countries and their foreign policy orientations further complicates this picture. The Azerbaijani government has grown consistently less tolerant of dissenting views in recent years, to the point that after the recent elections the opposition is no longer represented in the Parliament. At the same time, its approach to the foreign policy has been remarkably sensible and pro-Western. By contrast, Turkey can claim to be a more democratic country than Azerbaijan, but its foreign policy under the AKP has been ill-served by a mix of wishful thinking and a pro-Islamist bias in dealings with Israel, Iran, Sudan and the promotion of Hamas.

This has resulted in Turkey and Azerbaijan estranged from each other on an array of international and domestic policy issues. Azerbaijan, for example, has made a point of continuing close relations with Israel after Turkey fell out with the Jewish state. Azerbaijan is much more critical of Iran's current leadership than Turkey, and its policies on Iran are aligned to those of the West. As far as domestic policies are concerned, many in Turkey see Azerbaijan as an authoritarian petro-state with scant regard for the rule of law. Azerbaijanis, for their part, even those who are highly critical of their government, generally don’t see any merit in an AKP-style "moderate Islamism." Azerbaijani liberals, once hopeful of a positive spill-over to Azerbaijan from Turkey's European integration, now watch with dismay how freedom of expression is increasingly under threat in the AKP’s Turkey.

Not all is gloom and doom, however. Turks and Azerbaijanis still have warmer feelings toward each other than probably to any other nation in the world. The two countries share powerful common interests in regional security, trade and energy cooperation. There are burgeoning cultural and educational exchanges.

But the recent ups and downs mean that the romantic phase of a "one nation, two states" relationship is over. It is time to develop a more realistic and mature partnership.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, but writes in a personal capacity.