“Zero Problems with Neighbors”: The Case of Azerbaijan

Turkey’s assertive current foreign policy discourse of “zero problems with neighbors” has already been highly criticized among local and international analysts. The criticism has mainly focused on Turkey’s changing position vis-a-vis the Middle East, since the region is experiencing a unique paradigm shift. This shift has also caused some turns and changes in Turkish foreign policy, under Ahmet DavutoÛlu’s concept of “strategic depth.Ó The concept, Òstrategic depthÓ can be said to resemble a similar approach to Pakistan’s engagement with Afghanistan following the latter’s invasion by the Soviet Union through the 1980s. Pakistan sought to do this to prevent encirclement by a ÒhostileÓ India and a USSR-supported Afghanistan1. The non-military version of this new regional engagement would be based on the idea that Pakistan could improve relations with other Islamic countries such as Iran and Turkey, cultivate improved economic and cultural ties with them, and thus turn them into strong allies against India2 . Thus, the well known concept of Òstrategic depthÓ was introduced to world politics years before DavutoÛlu’s book was published in 2001.

In theory, the attempt to improve relations with neighboring countries, with which Turkey has previously had serious problems, was a positive attempt. However due to a large number of structural faults, we have already received the result: total disappointment.

Even so, this short op-ed will not further increase Turkey’s “diplomatic” confusion on the problems of her neighborhood, such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s receiving of the “Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights” in November 2010, just five months before declaring in May 2011 the immediate need for Gaddafi to step down “for the sake of Libya’s future.” We will not go into the details of why “Brother Bashar” turned into “a person who kills his own civilians” in the eyes of the Turkish Premier, or indeed why joint cabinet meetings with the Iraqis were replaced by increasing tensions that have ultimately become a new front in the Sunni-Shia clash. We shall not dwell on the reasons behind the failings at “the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform,” either, which constitutes yet another example of the shallow “photography-based diplomacy” of Davutoğlu. We will only consider the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy with regard to Azerbaijan, with particular reference to the potential opening of the Turkish-Armenian border in 2009.

One thing had been still lost on the Azerbaijani side during the process: trust in the current Turkish government. It has been more than three years since Turkish-Azerbaijani relations passed a critical breaking point, and we are still experiencing the fall out.

As we know, the momentum of Turkish-Armenian relations changed (at least was sought to be changed) with President Gül’s visit to the Armenian capital Yerevan on Sept. 6, 2008, and the subsequent bilateral behind-closed-doors diplomatic talks, known as Òfootball diplomacy.Ó The signing of two protocols (the “Establishment of Diplomatic Relations” and the “Improvement of Bilateral Relations on Oct. 10, 2009, also took many by surprise. In this context, opening the border with Armenia – which has been closed since April 1993 – was the main challenge to improving relations. However, in this regard, there were three different channels of diplomacy in front of Turkey (Turkey-Armenia, Turkey-Azerbaijan, and the influence of international actors), and it also had an obligation to itself not to re-open the border unless Armenia ends its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the above periods, the AKP government neglected one particular channel, and the need for talks with Azerbaijan was not taken into consideration. This is a personal impression, based on what one of the AKP’s high level foreign policy officials told me during casual talks at a policy forum in Brussels late in March 2009. According to this official, “the border will definitely be opened between President Obama’s visit to Turkey on April 4-6 and April 24, 2009.” When I asked him whether the groundwork had been laid for re-opening the border (which is a positive and necessary action, in my opinion), it was easy to understand that the AKP had underestimated the public debate that would take place within Turkey. In addition, former official obligations regarding Nagorno-Karabakh were also ignored.

In order to help stimulate a debate in public, while giving an interview to ABHaber – a leading source on Turkey’s European affairs – about the forum, I shared the oncoming border issue without mentioning the government source, (published on March 28: “ABHaber announces: Turkish-Armenian border can be opened on April”) . What surprised me was that one day later this had become a headline in daily HŸrriyet, based on the information of ABHaber (“He (Obama) will leave Ankara, the border will be opened”) .

This was the starting point for Azerbaijan. After this news was published in Turkey’s famous daily newspapers, officials from Azerbaijan’s presidency and foreign affairs ministries say that they immediately understood the importance and seriousness of the situation and were planning a number of counter actions. First of all, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev cancelled his trip to Istanbul for the Alliance of Civilizations Meeting, which had been scheduled for April 6-7. Turkish President Abdullah Gül and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Aliyev in an attempt to persuade him to participate and even suggested arranging a talk with Obama, but Aliyev still refused to join. Furthermore, he did not even send any ministers to the meeting, only his daughter.

While this became publicly known proof of increasing tensions between Turkey and Azerbaijan, the latter also used back channels to change the situation, and it succeeded in the end.

As a result, the situation turned 180 degrees to the other direction from where it had started. However, one thing had been still lost on the Azerbaijani side during the process: trust in the current Turkish government. After three years, Azerbaijani officials still for sure see Turkey’s policy in the Southern Caucasus as unstable and, at this point, there is a strong possibility of opposition in Turkey to diversifying Azerbaijan’s policy-making contacts in Turkey.

In this context, let us ask which method in foreign policy is most acceptable: one of trial and error, or one of spreading out the process by bringing the issue to maturity through subtle and silent bilateral and multilateral talks in order to reach the final aim?

About Emre Ozdemir

Independent Analyst