This week's closed workshop on “The Post-Ottoman Space: Soft Politics and Hard Choices”, held in Tbilisi and organized by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), provided a fascinating opportunity for the exploration of Turkey's role in the Caucasus.
The workshop title is arguably misleading in terms of Turkey's policy directions, both historical and current. For starters, the notion of a post-Ottoman space is immediately alienating to the South Caucasus countries, which only briefly and in part belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722), made up of Azeri Turks as well as Persians, rivaled the Ottomans.
These reflections were juxtaposed with Turkey's current foreign policy in the Caucasus, and Azerbaijan-Turkish relations. Undoubtedly, Turkish-Azerbaijan relations have been largely self-defined and promoted via the motto “one nation, two states,” which essentially became the foreign policy strategy for the two countries. Most people believe that this motto was coined in the 1990s, but in fact is much older. It has its roots in the late Ottoman era, when the political forces behind the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic declared in the 1918-1920 period that their relations with Ottoman Empire could be assessed as follows: “The Muslims of the Transcaucasus [i.e., Azerbaijanis] together with the Turks constitute one nationality.” However, after the Bolshevik occupation of Azerbaijan, this slogan was forgotten, and only raised again when Azerbaijan regained independence in 1991. But by this stage, Azerbaijan was facing a new dilemma: Is the “one nation, two state” notion more suitably applied to Iran, or to Turkey?
Azerbaijan's independence movement in the late 1980s began at the state border with Iran, when Soviet Azerbaijanis moved over the Iranian border in order to reunite with the Azerbaijanis living on Iranian territory. Here we have one nation of Azerbaijanis, but not two states. Iranian Azerbaijanis exist under Iranian rule. In regard to Turkey, the “one nation, two state” slogan was very compelling in terms of gaining regional influence with the support of a powerful country like Turkey, bolstered by the historical linguistic, religious and ethnic affinities. Furthermore, the soft power factors (media, TV, expanding commercial relations, education and popular culture) brought the two countries relations even closer. It is certainly true that both countries did occasionally have inflated expectations of one another, but the relationship was bolstered by increasing bilateral energy cooperation. As a counterbalance to Russia and Iran, Turkey's presence in the region was largely supported by the United States, and US-Azerbaijan relationship developed with support from Turkey. Even so, the two countries have diverged on a number of foreign policy issues, with the three following examples as the biggest points of contention.
The first key difference arose with the Cyprus issue. Turkish political elites pressured Baku about the need to recognize the independence of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Indeed, Azerbaijan promised in advance of the Annan Plan on Cyprus reunification, that if the Turks would accept it, Azerbaijan would do everything for Turks. After the failure of the Annan plan, whereby 76 percent of the Greek Cypriots rejected the UN proposal for unification in April 2004, the Turkish elite perceived “everything” as “recognizing independence.” In reality, the situation was different -- even because of the direct flight from Baku to Lefkosha, the Cyprus Republic blocked all the countries of the South Caucasus from starting negotiations on the European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan in time. In addition, Baku was worried that Cyprus would recognize the independence of the de-facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The second difference was the Kosovo question. Turkey supported Kosovo's independence as a newly emerging friendly, Muslim state in Europe, while Azerbaijan fully supported Serbia. From Baku's point of view, national interests did not mean forging alliances based solely on religious or ethnic unity. This was an early signal to Turkey, before the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement was on the agenda. One point Baku missed is that after 2002, Turkey underwent a power shift away from the Nationalists. Azerbaijan was lucky that despite this development, nationalistic sentiments in Turkish society prevailed, helping block Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.
The third and most serious crisis was the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. In hindsight, we can see that the signing of the Zurich protocols in October 2009 actually strengthened the Azerbaijani-Turkish relationship. The problem in the past was that societal relations were based on an unthinking acceptance of the fraternal Azerbaijan-Turkey axis, without ever really trying to understand each other's cultures.
Now we have reached a point where both countries understand the need to deepen the relationship at the level of society; until 2009 both sides “widened” rather than deepened the relationship. News coverage of Azerbaijan's internal dynamics in the mainstream Turkish press was extremely limited prior to the last three years, whereas the Azerbaijan public has always closely followed developments in Turkey. In addition, both countries understand that they must respect each other's foreign policy choices and can benefit from close cooperation, which will also soothe fears about threats to national interests, which may be very divergent. For instance, these days the Azerbaijan-Israel relationship is a close one, but the Baku-Tehran one is tense, while Israel-Turkey relations are struggling, and Ankara's dealings with Iran are more positive. However, the countries may be able to help one another: Azerbaijan can help normalize Turkish-Israeli relations, and Turkey can do same for Azerbaijan in Iran. One can argue that the 2009 crisis between the two countries changed a lot of latent problems. In 2010, the two countries signed the Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support, and developed and deepened their existing bilateral relations in different areas (education, health, industry). The Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) agreement was the final move, proving that a crisis was an effective means of understanding the true cost of friendship, beyond any motto.