Vol. 2, No. 23 (December 01, 2009)

Starting over? Turkey and Azerbaijan after the protocols

Nigar Goksel
Senior Analyst, European Stability Initiative
Editor, Turkish Policy Quarterly

The two protocols signed by Turkey and Armenia on October 10th are now awaiting action by the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee.  Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has frequently spoken against any rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia as long as the latter continues to occupy Azerbaijani territory.  Baku’s strategy to elicit popular concern in Turkey proved effective, since the Turkish government has often tried to defend its foreign policy decisions in terms of public opinion.  The AKP government is receptive to public opinion and has by now reiterated at every level that the protocols will not be ratified until the “occupation of Azerbaijan ends,” though it is not clear whether this refers to some – or all – occupied Azerbaijani regions around Karabakh, or also Karabakh itself.  It is quite feasible in Turkey that protocols wait in the parliament for long stretches of time.  In 2005, for example, Turkey signed an agreement extending its customs union with the EU to the new members of the Union, including Cyprus; this has still not been ratified.  For now, from the Azerbaijani perspective, the immediate “risk” may thus be averted. 

Despite the reallignment of Ankara with Baku’s red lines, the Turkish decision to sign the protocols in the first place and Azerbaijan’s reaction to that have left bitterness on both sides, and the current status quo in relations therefore rests on fragile pillars.  Even after the current tension fades, the potential for mutually inflamed emotions is on the horizon.  As spring (i.e. April) nears, Ankara is going to be challenged with the resolution in the US Congress on 1915 and is likely to again play the card of “normalization of relations with Armenia.”  If a breakthrough on the Karabagh front is not witnessed by then, tensions will again rise.  It is important at this juncture to take stock of the relationship, identify the weak links and the common interests, and invest in developing a more solid and multi-faceted understanding between the two countries.

Turkey currently struggles with deep divides and existential struggles between institutions, ideologies and interests.  However, democracy has been progressing, albeit fitfully, for the past ten years.  It is thus ever more important for those who want to influence the public opinion in Turkey and – as an extention – Ankara’s decision makers, to engage different interest groups in the country.  The AKP itself is not monolithic and includes many diversities, like a coalition, precisely because no single axis is able to win popular support in the complex society Turkey has evolved into.  Because of a deep polarization caused by other problems, the debate in Turkey about reconciliation with Armenia and its effects on Azerbaijan has been reduced to an unhealthy and overly-ideological ground.  A glance at the positions of Turkey’s nationalist far right, the country’s liberals, and the increasingly active “moderate Muslim” groups sheds light on this reality. 

A large number of Azerbaijan’s most vocal supporters are from among the ultranationalist right, a portion of the political spectrum which also opposes pursuing reforms needed for EU membership, advances conspiracy theories about the US and Israel, and regularly voices suspicion of “minority rights” in ways that border fascist rhetoric.  Pan-Turkist dreams motivated the involvement of some such groups in Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.  Though their solidarity over Karabakh was welcome in  Azerbaijan, meddling in Azerbaijan’s domestic politics to promote Turkic ideologies was naturally more controversial. 

Recently some names of such orientation have been charged of taking part in politically motivated assasinations and mafioso plots to overthrow the Turkish government.  The fact that Azerbaijan’s case is raised most often by such circles does not bode well for the image of Azerbaijan in Turkey.  Instead, it links Azerbaijan in the minds of many with one side of a domestic fight in Turkey, creating skepticism about shared values and visions with Azerbaijan among both the liberals and the conservative supporters of the government. The unfortunate reality is that those in Turkey who keep Azerbaijan on their radar screen are all too often ultra-right nationalists, so called moderate Muslims who see the potential for an Islamic awakening in Azerbaijan or liberals who argue Azerbaijan is hijacking Turkish foreign policy. While this is an unfortunate result of the shallow polarization in Turkish politics today, it is a reality that Azerbaijan should be aware of while judging the debate in Turkey. 

This is not to say that the notion of “Turkic solidarity” should be eliminated from discourse, but it should be supplemented and “tamed.” Those who  believe the bilateral relationship is paramount should take into account the trends in both socieites and accordingly try to develop new links and exchanges between a range of actors. Azerbaijan is increasingly developing its relations with the US and Israel, and has the potential to contribute to Turkey’s EU vocation by boosting Ankara as a key link in energy supplies to the West.  Azerbaijan can and should have a more diverse group of advocates in Turkey. 

Among the Turks most enthusiastic about normalization with Armenia (without necessarily conditioning this on progress in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict) are liberal figures who have faced the brunt of years of state repression of free debate, including debate about the wrongs of the Ottoman regime in the events of 1915.  They include, for example, former leftists imprisoned in the 1970s for their political thoughts, or individuals who “deconstructed nationalism” in their studies in the West in the 1980s.  Their feelings about Turkishness and Turkic nationalism are thus very different than many in Baku because for them these ideas were something to escape in order to modernize rather than a means to modernization as they were for many Azerbaijanis at the time of breaking free from Soviet repression. 

The perspective of liberal Turks is that 70 years of closed borders have aggravated dehumanization in Armenian and Turkish perceptions of each other.  Even though few, if any, of the Turkish liberals feel any enmity toward Azerbaijan, most of them would prioritize the benefits to Turkey’s domestic maturity, for which normal relations with Armenia is needed.  Moreover, many who think along these lines believe that the only way for Armenians to be able to open their eyes to the suffering they caused Azerbaijanis is if Turkey recognizes the suffering the Armenians were subjected to in Anatolia. For those who believe that the root of the problem between Turks/Azeris and Armenians is the 1915 tragedies, creating a more conducive environment in Turkey to adressing this issue takes precedence. Labeling such approaches as unpatriotic is not helpful. However a more tailored case can be made, that while historical reconciliation between Turks and Armenians is necessary, it should be independent from the geopolitical case against unconditinal opening of the borders.

Divergent mental frameworks sometimes lead to what might seem – from an Azerbaijani perspective – like contradictory actions.  For example, much of the most articulate criticism of the ban on Azerbaijani flags in the football stadium on October 14th came from those who roughly fall into the “liberal” camp.  Just as they would agree with the principle of Dashnaks protesting President Gul’s visit to Yerevan with signs such as “admit genocide, recognize your crime,” they insist that Turks should have the right to express their concern and dissent – as embodied in the Azerbaijan flag – during the football game which President Sargsyan attended in Bursa.    

At the same time – and this is especially important – despite the internal divisions, the Turkish policies towards Russia, Iran or Israel that have puzzled Azerbaijanis are shared widely in Turkey, across lines of political party and state institution.  The stylistic component is more particular to the government but the conviction that the global conjuncture necessitates these policies is common.  For those in Azerbaijan who wish to make the case for the bilateral relationship, the most effective arguments thus must be based on geostrategic interests.  

The intellectual elite of Turkey for many decades neglected the East, focusing their energies on integration with Europe and the US.  The closed borders of the Cold War contributed to that, and since 1991, Turkey and Azerbaijan have not invested enough in the relationship, a shortcoming that has contributed to a shallow understanding of the trends in the two countries’ respective societies and policy considerations in their capitals today.  Gradually, Turkish intellectuals have begun to explore other regions, including the Caucasus.  However there is a lot of catching up to do.  While Turkey aims to maximize its pivotal role in the region, it may inadvertently be tipping the regional power balances in the favor of Russia.  Azerbaijan needs to become an active participant in this process of intellectual recovery, while Turkey needs to learn far more about Azerbaijan, including the latter’s society, sensitivities, and power structures.  The patronizing “big brother” approach of the past is a deterrent and no longer justified in light of current realities.  Instead, both sides need to recognize that it is time for a new beginning.