Past crisis provided a reality check for Ankara and Baku

Past crisis provided a reality check for Ankara and Baku

Barçın Yinanç
Past crisis provided a reality check for Ankara and Baku

Azerbaijan is the country where Turkey has the most soft power, says Elhur Soltanov. Turkey’s relations with Russia help Baku as they ease Moscow’s concerns over Baku’s energy policies, he adds. HÜRRİYET photo, Murat ŞAKA

The crisis in relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan in 2008-9, when Turkey signed a protocol with Armenia to eventually open their border, served as a reality check for both Ankara and Baku, according to an Azerbaijani scholar.

“It helped us get back to our real senses. We are now standing on firmer ground because we tested our relationship,” Elhur Soltanov, from ADA University in Baku, told the Hürriyet Daily News.

You explain Baku’s energy policies in phases. Can you tell us these phases?

In the first phase, Azerbaijan made sure that everything else served its energy policy. All the tools it had in the tool box of foreign policy were geared toward a successful energy policy in the 1990s. This included the Azeri-Chirac-Guneshli project, which involved getting oil from the ground to the surface, and the Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan (BTC) project, which involved carrying it to the Mediterranean.

After that, nobody talked about Baku’s energy deals on gas. The Shah Deniz gas exploration and gas pipeline to Erzurum did not create the same fanfare as the BTC because the political friendship, technological structures and cooperation with the countries linked to the BTC had prepared the ground to get other projects realized later.

After that, energy policies started to serve Baku’s national interests. We forwent certain things in our national interests, for instance in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In 1994 there was a choice: Either we go with Nagorno-Karabakh and continue angering the Russians, or we temporarily put that issue on hold so we can focus on our energy policies. In a way, Nagorno-Karabakh was the price we paid for the success of our energy policy. By 2005, Baku started to reap the benefits of its energy policies and investing, not just in terms of money but also politically and in terms of international relations. It made sure that Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was increasingly respected.

In the third phase, Azerbaijan is both investing in energy policy but also using this policy for the advancement of larger national interest goals. In that sense we are facing a more difficult situation. Doing one thing at a time would be much easier for us; you either invest your money or you spend it, doing both things simultaneously will be more difficult. But the good news is that Azerbaijan has acquired some skills in the process, as well as some institutionalized friendships to be able to tackle the situation.

Also, politically in the 1990s the U.S.’s presence as a hegemon was important in terms of keeping certain countries silent and keeping foreign oil companies in the loop. At first, multinational companies were not happy with the BTC, but with assurances from both America and Turkey, the leadership made sure that this project worked.

Today, we don’t have U.S. leadership and we don’t have EU leadership. We have Azerbaijan-Turkish dual leadership. Ten years ago it would have been unimaginable to think that the two countries would shoulder such a large project of the magnitude of Shah Deniz 2. But they said “we have big enough economies, we have an understanding with each other to get together and pull this off.”

Actually, the relationship got into a big crisis in 2008-9 when Turkey signed a protocol with Armenia with the eventual aim of opening the border. Have Turkey and Azerbaijan left this crisis behind?

We saw what could happen to our relationship and I think both sides were scared. We looked at the downhill development and saw that if we go in that direction everybody will lose. It was a reality check for us, it helped us get back to our real senses. We are now standing on firmer ground, because we tested our relationship. Baku now is very proud of its relationship with Turkey. Despite all the talk about this being a “romantic relationship” - we call it “soft power” - what is bad about a romantic relationship between Ankara and Baku? It is a policy tool that Turkey should emphasize.

Actually, there was romance at the beginning. Now both sides’ feet seem to be on the ground.

It is romance coupled by a few billion dollars. And if you were to look to a country where Turkey has the most soft power, even including Northern Cyprus, it is Azerbaijan. Turkey’s soft power is nowhere higher than in Azerbaijan.

Some would argue that, to the contrary, Baku’s soft power is getting bigger in Turkey, with Azerbaijan becoming the biggest investor in Turkey, SOCAR investing in areas like the Turkish press. They might say that in fact Baku is hijacking Turkey’s policies, especially on Armenia.

Turkey is a regional great power. Azerbaijan, with its wealth of a few billion dollars, is not something that will change Turkish public opinion. I disagree with claims that Baku is hijacking Ankara’s policies.

When Turkey made a decision to close its borders with Armenia in 1993; Azerbaijan was an extremely weak country. So that was a Turkish choice. Turkey made that decision when Armenia advanced beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied territories beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. If those territories are still occupied, what is Turkey’s reason to unilaterally change this policy? The reason why Turkey stopped what it was planning to do, such as opening the borders, was not Azerbaijani pressure. It was because of the domestic political configuration in Turkey and because Azerbaijan has a lot of soft power in Turkey - the power of affection. It was Turkish public opinion that saved Azerbaijan.

But wouldn’t you agree that Baku realized that it needed to build a stronger presence in Turkey? It was after this period when Azerbaijan started to set up think tanks in Turkey, for example.

From soft power, perhaps we tried to go to having more tangible tools of power in Turkey. But it was also about timing. In 2005, we did not have the financial resources. If you look the countries around Azerbaijan, the only country where you can get very reliable investment and return is Turkey. By choice, Azerbaijani money had to go to Turkey.

How are you currently faring with Russia?

Looking to the South Caucasus, Georgia has been unnecessarily confrontational with Russia and the results have not been good for Georgia. Armenia is too close to Russia and is on the verge of losing its sovereignty to Russia. Then you have the third option. We have been neither unnecessarily confrontational nor too close to Russia. We have been quietly advancing our national interests. In terms of deeds, Azerbaijan has done more to make the region more independent. We don’t talk the talk of the Georgians, but we walk the walk more than the Georgians.

How do you think Russia sees Azerbaijan, with which it is actually a rival in terms of energy?

This is our diplomatic success: We are doing things that some consider to be very anti–Russian, while keeping our relationship with Russia as good as ever. I think Turkey has played a big a role in this as well. Turkey’s interdependence, both with Russia and with Azerbaijan, also helps to ease Baku’s relations with Moscow. This interdependence, with all the interrelated energy and trade deals, eases Russia’s concerns over Azerbaijan’s energy deals. In a sense, Turkey is moderating the influence of Azerbaijani actions vis a vis Russia because Russia sees Turkey as a partner.

But perhaps Nagorno-Karabakh remains the cost, used by Russia as a trump card?

If we were willing to sell oil and gas to Russia we could have gotten a much better deal on Nagorno-Karabakh. Russians feel that if it is resolved then Azerbaijan will go in the Western direction. It is the only weak link holding us back from realizing our full potential.

The allocation of financial resources to armaments raises the question on whether Baku will resort to more assertive policies to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan achieved military parity with Armenia only a couple of years ago. It is very normal for a country, 20 percent of whose territories are occupied, to spend on its military. I don’t think Azerbaijan is buying these weapons to start a war. If we can use somehow use these military procurements at the negotiating table to get a resolution of the conflict, that will be a success. I don’t think Azerbaijan is preparing for war, but rather it is preparing for a better negotiating situation.

What message has Baku taken from the Ukraine crisis?

Ukraine is the biggest jewel among the post-Soviet states. If Russia comes in broad daylight occupies Ukraine and the Western world shows this limited reaction, it tells us that if something goes wrong with Russia we shouldn’t trust anybody to come and save us. The signal was very bad in the sense that it told everybody who is the real boss in the region, who is the real hegemon.

How does this message affects Baku’s vocation toward the West? There is a lot of criticism about the state of democracy in Azerbaijan.

As the Azerbaijani leadership also says, we have to do more in terms of democratization. But Azerbaijan is not doing its business with Russia or Iran. Azerbaijan has been dealing with Turkey, Georgia, and Western states. We have been moving in the Western direction. Yes, there are ups and downs, but strategically there is nothing that indicates that Azerbaijan wants to go in the direction of its northern or southern neighbors.

Who is Elnur Soltanov ?


Dr. Elnur Soltanov earned his MA degree in international relations from Middle East Technical University (METU) in Turkey (2003), and his PhD in political science from Texas Tech University (2009).

Between 2000 and 2003, Soltanov worked as a researcher at the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies (ASAM) think tank in Ankara, where he also served as the editor of Avrasya Haber, a joint project with the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TCDA). His publications include academic and analytical articles for English- and foreign-language journals and newspapers, as well as a book, “A Political Economy of Russian Foreign Policy,” published in Germany in 2009.

Prior to joining ADA University, Soltanov served as assistant professor of political science at Truman State University, Missouri.