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Turkey and Azerbaijan: Passion, principle or pragmatism? (II)

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, five Turkic nations became independent and Turkey postured to fill the power vacuum. Mostly, this backfired. Eager for independence, these new nations did not want to be patronized and Turkey was ill prepared to understand the power dynamics and social affinities in these countries. Moreover, domestic political and economic problems consumed Ankara throughout the 1990s, making Turkey a confusing partner to deal with. The country’s coalition government changed on a yearly basis, each with a different vision for the region: A Turkish nationalist party representative would travel with a pan-Turkic agenda while a member of Parliament from an Islamic party would advocate religious unity.

By the end of the decade, the Turkish military was viewed as the most reliable and predictable counterpart in the country. It did not take long for Russia to reconsolidate its position, leaving Turkey with a limited sphere of influence. But there were also successes. As a counterbalance to Russia and Iran, Turkey’s presence in the region was largely supported by the United States. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline was a major accomplishment in this sense and Turkey’s overt intent to become an energy hub has since become a significant part of its strong relations with Azerbaijan.

In Central Asia, though, most of the momentum fizzled. This is the backdrop against which a Turkish NGO leader said last week, explaining why Turkey should not allow relations with Azerbaijan to spiral downward: "Azerbaijan is the last one left. Central Asia has been long lost. If Azerbaijan slips away too, it will be the final and complete blow to the Turkic solidarity rhetoric sounded so boldly by Turkey in the early 1990s."

It is important to recognize that the recent questioning in Azerbaijan of Turkey’s central standing reaches beyond the feeling that Turkey has betrayed Azerbaijan in its dealings with Armenia. Many politicians, diplomats and analysts have also been taken aback by other shifts in Turkey’s foreign policy in areas such as energy and Black Sea politics. Turkey is expected to use its pivotal position to counterbalance Russia in the region Ğ to at least protect the existing equilibrium rather than tilting the balance further in favor of Moscow.

However, Turkey has moved on to a new paradigm in foreign policy, with more case-by-case basis pragmatism and new ambitions toward being a stand-alone regional power. Lessons have been learned after Turkey blatantly confronted Russia’s interests in the region and, as a result, lost more ground. Moreover, there is skepticism within the Turkish diplomatic corps about the long-term prospects of Western leverage in the region. The continuing emotional rhetoric of absolute unity of purpose between Turkey and Azerbaijan has masked the gradual, but growing divergences.

Disappointment was the most pronounced feeling one could ascertain on the streets of Baku after the Aug. 2008 Russia-Georgia war. "Azerbaijan is not strong enough, but we thought Turkey had the clout to speak out louder about the strangling nature of Russia’s policies in the region," one Azerbaijani said.

Months later, another young Azerbaijani commented: "Who is Turkey courting and why? It is so hard to understand. When [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan took a strong stance on Gaza and stormed out of the panel with President Peres in Davos, was this passion and principle, or was it pragmatism Ğ and which of these apply to us?"

If the card of shared religion is to be invoked as a uniting factor, one again enters a gray area, as local authorities do not necessarily receive Turkish religious initiatives in Azerbaijan positively. In the town of Sheki in northern Azerbaijan, the only Turkish presence is a school founded by the Gülen movement and locals are divided in their opinions about this establishment.

On the other hand, Turkey’s staunch secularist circles have not left a positive impression in Azerbaijan either. Apparently addressing students in Baku, a Turkish education minister underlined the threat of girls wearing headscarves in university, a comment that triggered a rebellious reaction: The next day, there were many more young women wearing the headscarf in class. "You are exporting your problems to us, not solutions," one diplomat commented. Whether this is an accurate depiction of reality or not, the articulation of Turkey’s influence is telling.

Though there have been successful examples of collaboration in the business sphere, many commercial endeavors have been based on crony relationships and have brought the worst business practices of both countries to the fore, damaging reputations in the process.

Azerbaijani opposition sympathizers from time to time express the grievance that Turkey disregards the real interests of the people by not advocating on human-rights issues or supporting opposition movements in Azerbaijan. In fact, in the 1990s, when Turkey did meddle in Azerbaijani domestic politics Ğ in some cases, using fascist tactics Ğ it was in support of Turkic nationalists that did not have the capacity to survive the domestic and regional challenges they faced at the time.

Azerbaijan has also made questionable choices when it comes to nurturing close relations with people in Turkey. For example, among the ultra-nationalists who are now in dire straits as Turkey cracks down on shady gang-like structures, there are a disproportionate number of advocates of Azerbaijan. Turkey’s domestic power balance has been changing dramatically since the turn of the century. Choices of arguments to make and individuals to liaise with in Turkey made in the 1990s are no longer optimal in Turkey’s current setting. The new realities require a new approach.

Few Azerbaijanis grasp the role the Armenian issue plays in Turkey’s ongoing social and political transformation. And few Turks are aware of how unpredictable Turkey has come across over the years when viewed from Baku, or how Turkey’s various policy moves affect Azerbaijan’s sovereignty. This is why, when faced with the prospect of normalization between Turkey and Armenia in April 2009, negative rhetoric could be so rapidly sparked in the public debate in both Turkey and Azerbaijan. The rhetoric of the two countries being indivisible has prevented an acknowledgement that mutual understanding must be worked on, and has set the stage for mutually unreasonable expectations. Recent tensions should be a wake-up call to various layers in both countries’ policy communities.

Nigar Goksel is a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative and editor in chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. This piece was published by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or GMF, as part of the "On Turkey" series on June 4. The views expressed  here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the GMF or the Daily News.