BAKU - Although the storm in Turkish-Azerbaijani relations has settled following assurances from Ankara that it will not open its borders with Yerevan before a breakthrough in Armenian-Azerbaijani issues is made, it seems difficult for the short term to eradicate the crisis of confidence erupted recently between Ankara and Baku.
Ankara and Yerevan came very close to a deal that would normalize relations between the two countries but the process came to a sudden halt following reaction from Azerbaijan, which is opposed to the opening of the border without progress in the Nagorno Karabakh issue.
Turkey closed its borders with Armenia after the Armenian occupation of the Azerbaijani enclave Nagorno Karabakh, as well as other regions surrounding the enclave.
“We were not informed of the talks between Turkey and Armenia,” Asım Mollazade said of the negotiations conducted between Turkish and Armenian diplomats. The talks gained momentum following Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s historic visit to Yerevan last September. “We learned it from others,” added Mollazade, the leader of the opposition Democratic Reform Party.
The lack of confidence is not a recent factor in relations. When the Justice and Development Party, or the AKP, came to power, Baku hesitated to fully trust the new government in Ankara. “There was an apprehension towards the AKP. Baku was not sure whether the Turkic world would appear high on the agenda of the AKP. There was a suspicion that the AKP could prioritize other issues to the detriment of Azerbaijan,” said a foreign observer, who asked not to be identified.
Although the recent statements from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Gül have calmed down the administration’s anxiety, the fact that the Turkish parliamentary group that went to Baku last week did not include AKP parliamentarians did not go unnoticed. “Relations with Azerbaijan should be a bipartisan issue. It should not be the victim of discussions between the government and the opposition,” said Mollazade, talking to Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review right after a meeting with the visiting delegation.
In every conversation in Baku that involves the Caucasus, Russia is inevitably mentioned. Opponents of Russia see the hand of Moscow in the rapprochement between the Turks and the Armenians, as it will be detrimental to relations between Ankara and Baku.
“Russia wants the Caucasus out of the hands of the Muslims,” taxi driver Ennagi İsmailoglu said. “Russia will never want good relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan.”
In the short term, open borders between Turkey and Armenia will benefit Russia, especially in light of the recent war with Georgia, as it will have better access to Armenia where it still has military troops. Russian flights presently carrying ammunition to troops in Armenia are flying all the way from Turkmenistan. Furthermore, it will further isolate Georgia.
Turkey and Azerbaijan forged good relations right after Azerbaijan declared its independence. The Azerbaijani government, under Haydar Aliyev, the father of the current president has been careful not to alienate the Russians. “In fact we have always advised Azerbaijanis to go very careful with Russia, to avoid policies that might anger Russians,” said a Turkish diplomat who is familiar with the early stages of the bilateral relations.
Ever since independence, Azerbaijan has been the scene of rivalry between Turkey and Russia for cultural, economic and political supremacy. Turkey has the advantage of having linguistic, religious and ethnic affinity. The Turkish dialect spoken by the Azerbaijanis is easily understood by Turks. But the Russians have the advantage of having kept Azerbaijan under Soviet domination for half a century. Many Azerbaijanis still speak Russian.
İlham Aliyev, the son of Haydar Aliyev, who took over the government following the death of his father, is still surrounded by the members of the old Soviet cadres. “There is a pro Russian group in the government that is leading an anti Turkish campaign,” Arastun Orujlu, president of the East-West Research Center, said. After the advent of İlham Aliyev, Turkish soldiers were sent back to Turkey, claimed Orujlu. The broadcasting of Turkish soap operas, which are very popular among the Azerbaijani public, were stopped in an effort to avoid the influence of Turkish on the local dialect. “I see no rational in this decision. This came us a result of Russian pressure,” said Nesip Nesibli, of the opposition party Musavat.
Search for identity
Although Turkish officials recognize the presence of what they call “the Soviet-minded officials, who believe the center of the world is still Moscow,” there is not such a perception in Ankara that Azerbaijan is deliberately taken steps to decrease Turkey’s influence. “As Azerbaijani soldiers were also trained in Turkey, they are back in Baku to provide training themselves. The Turkish soldiers have finished their mission in Baku, it is only natural for them to leave Azerbaijan,” said one Turkish official. There is also a relative understanding in Turkish circles for Azerbaijani efforts to keep the local culture away from the cultural influence of Turkey. “At one stage every kid in Azerbaijan was wearing t-shirts of the nationalistic film ‘Valley of the Wolf.” Differences emerged in the language spoken by the grandfather and the grandson,” said a Turkish businessmen living in Baku.
No matter how the two sides’ officials perceive the cultural wars, the fact remains that the recent developments seem to have reinforced the suspicion on the part of the Aliyev administration toward the AKP. “The recent events have shown to us that the motto ‘one nation two states’ has remained only rhetoric. We have not been able to substantiate it,” said Nesibli. “The Turkish government made the mistake of conducting talks with Yerevan without consulting Baku. Our administration, however, made the mistake of making its discontent public, instead of handling it through the diplomatic channels,” Nesibli added, criticizing the decision of Aliyev not to go to Turkey.
“Baku resented the fact that Turkey took them for granted,” one foreign observer said.
“What I see is the need to talk more, we need to be more in touch with each other,” Mollazade said of how to overcome the confidence crisis between the two countries known until recently as strategic partners.