Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Turkey and Azerbaijan Strengthen Economic, Security Ties

20 Nov 2007
World Politics Review Exclusive
Marianna Gurtovnik

The early-November visit to Azerbaijan of the newly elected President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, highlighted the strategic importance of the Turkey-Azerbaijan relationship and the two countries' common economic and security interests. As such, it attracted much attention in the Azerbaijani media, where analysts happily noted that Azerbaijan was the first country visited by the Turkish leader since he assumed his post in July. As Azerbaijaini political scientist Rustam Mammadov suggested in the wake of the trip, Gul's visit even had implications for the complex political situation unfolding in the Middle East. Speaking to the News - Azerbaijan agency, Mammadov said "the situation in Iran and Iraq as well as Turkey's deteriorated relations with the United States and the European Union require careful consideration on the part of the Turkish leader and his Azerbaijani counterpart."

Fighting the PKK

Indeed, Gul's visit to Azerbaijan occurred amidst events that have prompted Turkey's leaders to shore up support from long-time allies such as Azerbaijan. The Turkish leadership was particularly exercised by the Kurdistan Workers' Party's (PKK) intensified incursions into Turkey. Speaking at a press conference in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, Gul said that the United States should bear responsibility for the fight against terrorists throughout Iraq and not just in selected provinces. He also told journalists that Turkey expected Azerbaijan's cooperation against the PKK. On Nov. 6, Azerbaijan's parliament, the Milli Majlis, announced its intentions to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization, a step may help address the Turks' lingering misgivings about the PKK's allegedly deep roots in Azerbaijan.

In light of Turkey's recent spat with Iraqi Kurds, Azerbaijan and Turkey are also worried that the energy security in the region might be jeopardized. Global Insight, a Boston-based economic forecasting publication, last month noted the threat the PKK poses to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline if Turkey pursues retaliatory strikes in Kurdistan. The BTC carries oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to Georgia and Turkey. Over half of the pipeline -- 669 of 1,092 miles -- passes through Turkish territory that is home to significant numbers of ethnic Kurds.

The Milli Majlis intends to have a draft statement on the PKK ready before the end of November. But naming the PKK a terrorist organization might have little practical effect given the absence in Azerbaijan of a comprehensive legal, diplomatic, and administrative strategy against terrorism. Until such a plan is in place, Azerbaijan should rely on international anti-terrorism conventions to which Azerbaijan is a party when developing specific measures to combat PKK, says Baku-based political analyst Rauf Mirkadyrov. But he insisted that such measures be fully transparent. "This is necessary in order to avoid the abuse of power by law enforcement officials," Mirkadyrov wrote in a Nov. 9 analysis in the Azerbaijani daily Zerkalo.

Azerbaijani authorities have traditionally taken the threat of terrorism seriously. Earlier this month, local security forces quashed what appeared to be a massive Islamist plot against government offices and the British and American embassies in Baku. Both embassies briefly suspended their operations following the arrest of several suspects and the killing of one member of the terrorist group.

Cultivating Regional Allegiances

Azerbaijani-Turkish relations received another boost last month when Azerbaijan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the resolution to recognize as genocide the early-20th century massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire that was adopted last month by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Azerbaijan Foreign Affairs Ministry's Oct. 12 statement condemned the resolution as "wrong and biased . . . and harmful for the developments in the region and globally." The statement further backed "the Turkish call to examine the archival documents related to the World War I tragedies . . . before taking steps."

The Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance against Armenia dates back to the early 1990s. Following Armenia's occupation of the Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent Azerbaijani regions in 1992-1993, Turkey closed its border with Armenia. Turkish officials link the reopening of the border to Armenia's return of the occupied lands to Azerbaijan. Indicative of Turkey's ambitions to assert itself as a regional peacekeeper, President Gul noted earlier this month in an interview with Azerbaijan's Turan news agency that "Ankara is ready to lend its efforts to the maintenance of peace and stability in the South Caucasus region."

Turkey's Economic Designs

Bilateral economic relations represented another prominent item in the Turkish president's agenda in Azerbaijan. Gul and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, signed several bilateral agreements, including ones pertaining to long-term economic cooperation and mutual economic privileges.

Speaking to the press in Baku, Gul pointed out that over 2,000 Turkish firms have created 50,000 jobs in Azerbaijan and invested $5 billion in Azerbaijan's economy, including the energy sector. To prove his intention to solidify economic ties with Azerbaijan, Gul included 200 Turkish entrepreneurs in his delegation. The move was supposed to mollify Turkish businessmen who complained that Gul's predecessor, Ahmed Necet Sezer, rarely brought them along on his foreign trips. But the change failed to produce the desired effect: Turkey's business elite were disappointed with Gul's choice of small- and medium-sized business owners over the country's top financiers. Their Azerbaijani counterparts appeared to agree. Rashad Rasullu, secretary general of the Baku-based Azerbaijan-Turkey Businessmen Union, believes that Turkey should move more aggressively to avail itself of new investment opportunities in Azerbaijan. In a Nov. 6 interview with the Turkish Daily News, Rasullu said that Azerbaijan "needs help and experience to adapt itself to the rest of the world. Turkey should not miss this chance of becoming a stronger partner."

Gul's rhetoric about "brotherly ties" between the Turks and other regional Muslim nations did not appear to particularly excite Azeris, who have heard such rhetoric many times from Turkish presidents. Yet, lofty speeches aside, Gul did not lack ambitious ideas, and displayed an eagerness to push them forward. In an interview to the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman prior to flying to Baku, he talked at length about his plans for new energy and transportation networks that will connect Turkey to the South Caucasus and further to Kazakhstan and even China. He said he hoped that a new natural gas pipeline from Baku to the Turkish port of Erzurum via Tbilisi, Georgia, would be completed by the end of 2007, followed, in a few months, by a railway linking Baku and Tbilisi with the Turkish city of Kars. Gul sounded confident that these projects would become a reality soon, citing the example of the BTC pipeline, which became operational in 2005 despite the initial strong doubts about its feasibility.

This is not Turkey's first attempt at economic influence in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. In the mid-1990s, Turkey scaled back an attempt to boost its economic presence in Azerbaijan, partly because of local corruption but also because it lacked the resources to become the regional superpower that it aspired to be. A decade later, Turkey seems to be attempting a comeback. Given the latest turbulent changes across the region and in Turkey itself, it is now in greater need of strong alliances with its neighbors. Whether President Gul's Administration will be successful at forging these alliances remains to be seen.

Marianna Gurtovnik is a freelance analyst based in the United States. She covers governance reforms, foreign policy, and civil society developments in the Newly Independent States.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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