Azerbaijan: Time to Choose Side?As Russian-Turkish relations become more strained in the aftermath of the Su-24 incident, both powers seek to demonstrate their muscles to each other. Given that more actors will be involved in this rumble regardless of their will, each belligerent side tries to be more attractive and earn more allies. The position of Azerbaijan, a tiny nation with huge oil and gas reserves sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, could also be important in this context.

Azerbaijan is located at the crossroads of different civilisations. The country’s population speaks a Turkic language, belongs to Islam’s Persian Shia branch and has been under Russian rule for the past 200 years. Each factor has contributed to shaping Azerbaijan’s development and traditions.

The balanced foreign policy Azerbaijan has been pursuing for the last two decades is probably also based on that multicultural mentality. Observers may notice that Azerbaijani authorities never seem eager to get involved in major conflicts happening in its neighbourhood or choosing sides. Without clarifying its concrete position regarding particular developments, the country can simultaneously maintain warm relations with Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Iran. Loyal to its foreign course, Azerbaijani leadership has also distanced itself from the Syrian conflict since the latter’s early days and not joined any coalition, simply watching how world powers enter this bloody killing field.

Unlike other South Caucasian nations (Armenia is fully in Russia’s orbit, while Georgia has chosen a westward path to Russia’s disapproval), Azerbaijan maintains good relations with both Russia and Turkey. Azerbaijani leadership, however, repeats that their country is the South Caucasus’ leading one and claims to be a fully independent and equal regional actor. Thus, the country should express its position as it is already drawn into the Middle East’s geopolitical struggle in in spite of its own will.

Which side will Baku join if forced to make an ultimate choice? Russia with its declining economy and weakening position or Turkey backed by NATO? Some experts have already conied it as a dilemma between Russian phobia and Turkic brotherhood.

 

Turkic brotherhood

For Azerbaijan, Turkey is not only a natural ally, but also a “brother nation” (a rare phenomenon in the 21st century reality). The Turkish and Azerbaijani peoples share the same roots and almost a common language. The mutual relations are based on the formula “One nation, two states”.

The two countries conduct consultations and harmonise their policies on many issues. It is therefore no surprise that since the mid-1990s, Turkey has sealed its borders with neighbouring Armenia in protest towards the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani region which is currently under the control of Armenian armed forces. Several of Turkey’s and Armenia’s attempts to find reconciliation and open their borders, most recently in 2009, were harshly criticised in both Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Turkish authorities ultimately decided not to proceed in order to maintain solidarity with Azerbaijan.

Turkey and Azerbaijan have been co-operating on a number of regional energy and transport projects, including a railway line connecting not only two countries but also two continents. It is seen an important segment of an alternative route to the one crossing Russia.

The two nations have also built an effective energy infrastructure that includes oil and gas pipelines extending from Azerbaijan to Turkey. Those lines enable Azerbaijan to access European markets; Turkey, in turn, is eager to extend the network further in order to become an important energy hub at Europe’s threshold. In this new conjuncture, Turkey sees Azerbaijan along with Qatar as an alternative energy source to replace Russian oil and gas, while Russia would try to prevent this co-operation in order to harden its pressure over Ankara.

Such close relations between the two countries are further cemented by a military alliance. Parallel to the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey military triangle, Azerbaijan and Turkey maintain a strategic partnership which is materialised by several bilateral documents, the most recent having been signed in 2010. The joint military exercises organised in 2014 and 2015 were of great importance (a) for Azerbaijan, as they showed a NATO member’s support to regional powers such as Russia and Iran, as well as to its arch-nemesis Armenia and (b) for Turkey, as they established a military ally between Russia and Iran next to the Caspian Sea.

 

Russian phobia

Although around two million Azerbaijanis are currently based in Russia, both as Russian citizens and gastarbaiters (“guest workers”; the remittances the latter send home are annually over a billion dollars, a large figure for the tiny country) and though Russia has an enormous cultural influence over Azerbaijan as a result of two centuries of colonialism, the public attitude in Azerbaijan towards Russia is not always friendly.

In Azerbaijani society, Russians are perceived mostly as invaders that have controlled Azerbaijan for almost 200 years with a two-year halfway break. For current generations, Russians are seen as direct and indirect perpetrators of the two most terrible events which have occurred in Azerbaijan’s modern history. One is Black January (when Soviet soldiers entered Baku to suppress the independence movement and killed over 100 people in 1990); the other is the Khojali massacre (when a Russian regiment aided Armenian gangs to slaughter unarmed civilians in 1992 during the Karabakh War).

Russia is currently engaged as a medium towards obtaining a peaceful solution for the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. The negotiations that followed the 1994 truce between Azerbaijan and Armenia have been unfruitful so far. Despite being a member of an intermediate group, Russia has its military base stationed in Armenia, a fact which further inflames public distrust in Azerbaijan towards Russia. A strong general opinion prevails in Azerbaijan that despite growing military expenditures and the army’s modernisation, the country cannot liberate its occupied territories because the Russian military is present in the region backing Armenia, while Russian politicians prolong Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh through fruitless talks.

Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict also hurts Azerbaijan’s national interests in several ways, the first being military activities that take place just within a few miles of Azerbaijan’s borders. Last November, the Russian navy unleashed cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea towards targets across Syria, but did not provide information to littoral nations. Moreover, Syrian Turkmen have been among Russia’s intensive targets, who happen to speak southern dialects of the Azeri language. Although several Syrian Turkmen leaders accuse Azerbaijanis of being mute towards this slaughter, some voices in Azerbaijan call on defending Turkmen brothers from Russian bombs – this could be considered another factor that harms Russia’s image in Azerbaijan.

 

*              *              *

 

In conclusion, it is obvious that Azerbaijani foreign policy-makers could strive to prolong the traditional course as long as possible. But political analysts from different countries warn about the imminence of a new global conflict. It is quite possible that the Azerbaijani authorities will again manage to survive this crisis without determining its ally (or allies). However, if forced to make an ultimate choice, the decision should be towards Turkey, despite Russia’s great influence in the region and the existence of pro-Russian powers in Azerbaijani leadership. In addition to the above mentioned factors that tip the scale in favour of Turkey, the official Baku stance should consider that siding with Moscow promises no future since Russia possesses zero chance against NATO in political, military or economic terms.

However, openly siding with Turkey against Russia might also result in negative developments regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s neighboring country Georgia launched an open confrontation against Russia in 2008, and ended up a sense of permanent loss regarding the already separated Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, which were later recognised by Russia. Nevertheless, the Azerbaijani authorities’ potential decision to join the Russian coalition against Turkey would never be accepted by the Azerbaijani people either.

 

Share this post