Vol. 4, No. 13 (July 01, 2011)

Azerbaijan and the revision of Turkey’s regional policy

Itir Bagdadi
Department of International Relations and the European Union
Izmir University of Economics

Azerbaijan has always played a special role in Turkey’s foreign policy, a role that reflects what Heydar Aliyev famously called their existence as “one nation, two states.”  Indeed, over the last century, Turkey’s foreign policy cannot be understood without reference to Azerbaijan, and in the last several years, Baku has played a key role in prompting the Turkish political elite to revise its plans for a “zero problem” situation with its neighbors, first and foremost Armenia.  

The relationship between the two Turkic countries in fact predates both of the modern states that exist today.  The short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), established in 1918, was the first democratic and secular Muslim state, predating Republican Turkey.  But even before that, given the close linguistic and cultural ties between Baku and Istanbul, Azerbaijan had played a significant role in the development of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire through the works of writers such as Mirza Feth Ali Ahundzade (or Akhundov, to stick with the Russified version of the name).  Other representatives of Azerbaijani intelligentsia, such as Hüseyinzade Ali Bey and Ahmet Agaoglu, were members of the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress in the late 19th—early 20th centuries.  Furthermore, Hüseyinzade Ali Bey, of Azeri Turkish origin, was the first Turkish-speaking intellectual to call for the unification of all Turkish speaking peoples into a single Turkish nation—a project that inspired Ziya Gökalp, a principal Turkist ideologist in the Ottoman Empire (Arslan and Bagdadi 2005). 

In the years leading up to World War I, Azeri and Turkish nationalist intellectuals worked together, with many opposing socialism and preferring nationalism to “unite all the classes of a community” (Swietochowski 1988, p. 87).  During that war,  the region became a war zone among the rival Ottoman and Russian empires and with the October Revolution and ultimate Bolshevik takeover of the Russian Empire in 1917, Committee of Union and Progress government served as a mediator between Moscow and the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, all seeking independence from Russia in the Peace Conference of Batumi in May 1918.  On September 16, 1918 Ottoman and Azerbaijani forces defeated a coalition of British-Armenian-Russian forces and occupied Baku, albeit for only a short period of time.  By 1920, Azerbaijan had forcibly subordinated to Soviet Russia along with Georgia and Armenia.  While with the 1921 Treaty of Kars, Turkey recognized Azerbaijan’s incorporation into the USSR, the treaty also gave Turkey a special guarantor status over Nakhchivan, the exclave territory of Azerbaijan which shares a 9 km border with Turkey. [1]

Turkey and Azerbaijan had relatively few contacts during most of the Soviet period, but in the late 1960s, Turkish Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel led a large delegation to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, a visit that caused many in Turkey to believe that if Moscow were to loosen its grip on the Turkic republics, Ankara could become the major source of inspiration for them (Harris 1995).  Subsequent events proved them to be correct.  After visiting Moscow in March 1991, Turkish President Turgut Özal received Soviet agreement to re-establish a consulate general in Baku.  With the collapse of the USSR, Turkey rapidly expanded its contacts with the Turkic republics, a trend that brought it into conflict with Moscow’s desire to retain the dominant position there (Kardas 2010).  

Turkey tried to avoid an open confrontation with the Russian Federation, but the Karabakh war forced Ankara to choose sides.  In 1993, Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, invoking the 1921 Kars Treaty, even declared that if Armenian forces entered Nakhchivan, Turkey would have no option but to respond (Harris 1995).  Then, following the Armenian occupation of the Kalbajar region of Azerbaijan later in that year, Turkey officially closed its border with Armenia, and it remains closed to this day.  At the same time, while Turkey did not officially provide military assistance to Azerbaijan, Turkish volunteers and informal aid from various Turkish sources did flow to Baku.

In support of Azerbaijan’s quest for territorial integrity, Turkey became its most important partner, even to the point of upsetting Russia.  Even Iran, which shares the Shia faith of the majority of Azerbaijanis, was reluctant to choose sides, preferring instead to promote economic ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia.  As a result, to this day, Iran and Azerbaijan at most have cordial relations, a situation that also reflects Tehran’s concerns about the roughly 20 million Azeri Turks who live in northern Iran and Baku’s wariness about Iran’s religious influence on Azerbaijanis (Demirtepe 2011). 

Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war, of course, did have benefits, as the oil-rich Azerbaijani state needed to find outlets for getting its natural resources to the world market.  The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in fact made Turkey a major energy transit hub.  That contributed to a growing closeness in relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan, with scholars, tourists, and others going back and forth between the two Turkic countries.  But this relationship was strained when Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party began its quest to implement Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s principle of zero-problems with neighbors. 

The zero-problem policy, by definition, required that Turkey have no problems with Armenia, a neighbor with which it had no official trade or diplomatic relations.  In 2009, once the news was leaked to Azerbaijan by the Russians that Turkey was having secret negotiations with Armenia and planned to open its borders, Azerbaijan began to question its relations with Turkey (Erhan 2010).  Although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to persuade Azerbaijan that these protocols could not be implemented without tangible advancement on the Karabakh issue, Azerbaijan was very much offended by Turkey’s actions (Eurasianet 2010).

Indeed, the 2009 Protocols signed by Turkey and Armenia made no mention of the Karabakh conflict, even though Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Turkish President Abdullah Gül repeatedly stated that no advancement in normalizing relations with Armenia could be made without Armenia evacuating some of the districts of Azerbaijan that it had occupied (Today’s Zaman 2009).  After Turkey began negotiating with Armenia, Baku showed its displeasure by announcing that it was planning to boost the price of natural gas Turkey was receiving at outdated prices (Finchannel.com 2010).  Erdogan immediately visited the Azerbaijani capital and again stated that there would be no change in Turkey’s policy of full support for Azerbaijan and that Ankara would consult with Baku before taking any steps to fulfill the protocols. Several months later, in April 2010, Turkey and Azerbaijan signed a strategic partnership agreement calling for further cooperation in military, political, security, humanitarian, economic and civil society issues (Zaman 2010).  In this way, Azerbaijan underlined the limits of the AKP’s zero-problem policy, having made it clear that at a time your neighbors have problems with each other, it may well be impossible to enjoy zero problems with both at the same time. 


Arslan, Ozan & Itir Bagdadi (2005). “Borderland Nationalism: The Effects of Empire Wars on Azerbaijan’s National Identity”, Paper presented at the 15th Annual ASEN Conference, London School of Economics. 

Demirtepe, Turgut (2011) “Türkiye-Iran-Azerbaycan Ilişkileri: Sorunlar ve Fırsatlar” (Turkey-Iran-Azerbaijan Relations: Problems and Opportunities), 2 March, available at http://www.usak.org.tr/makale.asp?id=2064 (accessed 14 June 2011).

Erhan, Çağrı (2010) “Ermenistan Protokollerinin 1 Yılında Türk-Azeri İlişkileri” (Turkey-Azerbaijani Relations on the First Anniversary of the Armenian Protocols), 14 October, available at http://www.usak.org.tr/makale.asp?id=1717 (accessed 14 June 2011).

Eurasianet (2010) “Turkey and Azerbaijan: What Wikileaks?”, Eurasianet.org, 2 December, available at http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62489 (accessed 14 June 2011).

Finchannel.com (2010) “Turkey to Pay 150 Percent More, $300 for Azeri Natural Gas”, 8 February, http://www.finchannel.com/news_flash/Oil_&_Auto/57752_Turkey_to_pay_150_percent_more,_$300_for_Azerbaijani_natural_gas/ (accessed 14 June 2011).

Harris, George S. (1995) “The Russian Federation and Turkey”, in Alvin Z. Rubinstein, ed., Regional Power Rivalries in the New Eurasia: Russia, Turkey and Iran (Armonk, NY).

Kardas, Saban (2010) “Turkey: Redrawing the Middle East Map or Building Sandcastles?”, Middle East Policy 17:1, Spring. 

Swietochowski, Tadeusz (1988) Müslüman Cemaatten Ulusal Kimliğe Rus Azerbaycanı 1905-1920 (Istanbul: Bağlam), trans. by Nuray Mert [Russian Azerbaijan 1905-1920. The Shaping of National Identity in a Muslim Community, Cambridge University Press, 1985].

Today’s Zaman (2009) “Azeri Envoy Denies Crisis in Ties With Turkey”, 25 April, Today’s Zaman, available at http://www.todayszaman.com/news-173435-azeri-envoy-denies-crisis-in-ties-with-turkey.html (accessed 14 June 2011).

Zaman (2010) “Azerbaycan ile Yüksek Düzeyli Stratejik İşbirliği Konseyi Kuruluşu Anlaşması İmzalandı” (An Agreement on Strategic Cooperation Has Been Signed With Azerbaijan), 15 September, available at http://www.zaman.com.tr/haber.do?haberno=1028143&title=azerbaycan-ile-yuksek-duzeyli-stratejik-isbirligi-konseyi-kurulusu-anlasmasi-imzalandi (accessed 14 June 2011).


[1] Archives du Service Historique de l’Armée de Terre, Carton No. 7 N 1639, “Les Nouveaux Etats du Caucase, Interview of Ahmet Djevdet Bey, le premier secrétaire de la délégation de l’Azerbaïdjan à la conférence de Constantinople”, 24 June 1918. As cited in Arslan and Bagdadi (2005).