WikiLeaks brought Azerbaijani-Turkish tensions 'out into the open'

Wed 26 Jan 2011 08:14 GMT | 12:14 Local Time

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News.Az interviews Nigar Goksel, senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative (ESI) and editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly.

Has the WikiLeaks scandal harmed Azeri-Turkish relations?

WikiLeaks brought to the fore already existing tensions between the two country's decision-makers and some of the civilian opinion leaders.

WikiLeaks were used by some in Turkey to support the argument that Turkey should not link its Armenia relations to Azerbaijan and the Karabakh resolution process. Some pointed out, for example, that Azerbaijan is clearly not "loyal" to Turkey, thus should not be given the front seat in Turkey's Caucasus policies. So in a way, WikiLeaks was exploited by a segment of the Turkish civilian policy community which was already looking to justify a downgrading in Turkish-Azerbaijani relations. Given that the Turkish public is generally supportive of Azerbaijan's causes, those who are interested in influencing Ankara's political expediency calculus realize they must first influence public opinion in Turkey. Arguing that Baku "betrays" Ankara is a convenient provocation towards this end.

In terms of relations between officials - there were no great surprises in WikiLeaks. Those who follow bilateral relations are aware that there are disjoints between Ankara and Baku, and that Ankara's new foreign policy is viewed with scepticism by some observers in Baku. The leak about Ilham Aliyev not wanting Turkey to be an energy hub was in a sense misleading though, because it was spun in such a way as to imply that Azerbaijan did not want Turkey to be a transit country for Azerbaijani gas to European markets. However, the Azerbaijani government has been quite straightforward about the transit issue. Turkey is the preferred route for transit, however Turkey's buying gas and re-selling it to European customers at a higher price (which, according to some uses of the word, is termed "being a hub") has not been favoured by Baku because of its own obvious strategic interests. That being said, Baku needs to diversify its export routes too and keep into consideration that Turkey prioritizes its own interests, which can sometimes be at the expense of Azerbaijan's.

Among some actors of both capitals there is an element of distrust or scepticism towards the other. And direct communication has not been sufficiently clear and smooth. Thus misunderstandings and the involvement of third parties have come about. For two countries with as strong a base for close relations, this is unfortunate. This problem has had negative consequences for both countries, particularly in the last few years. However the issue is not totally new. Throughout the 90s, as Turkish coalition governments came to power for an average of one year each, decision-makers in Baku would find that their counterparts kept shifting. Different definitions of national interests, different ideological leanings would come to the fore with each change of government in Turkey - and even within each government there were changes. In this environment, in its search for consistency and reliable channels of communication, Baku began to rely on the presidency and military institutions of Ankara. During the leadership of the AKP government in Ankara, the relative involvement of these institutions has been transformed and the task of building up alternative strong relationships of trust between Baku and Ankara has been neglected.

It was against this backdrop that Turkey's initiative with Armenia and Ankara's zigzags in energy negotiations created strains between the two capitals. Azerbaijan has been quite straightforward about its discontent on these two issues. It was Turkey whose positions were more ambiguous. By now, the misunderstandings and stylistic clashes on these two important fronts seem to have been overcome. However a bitterness remains due to the very tense relations, particularly in 2008 and 2009. Such high levels of tension could have been avoided, had stronger channels and more systematic efforts been exerted to understand either side's domestic and foreign policy calculations and red lines.

To sum up the answer, WikiLeaks did not necessarily create new tensions, but brought existing tensions out into the open more. This happened both due to the texts of the leaks themselves and due to the debate which could be heard in both societies about the released texts. However both sides were quick to deny that any harm had been done or that there were any hard feelings. This denial is also based on the interest of both governments: for reasons of domestic politics as well as strategic interests neither government would like tensions between the two capitals to be public information.

Turkey does not seem to be not playing such an active peacemaking role in the South Caucasus as it used to, while Russia is very active as a mediator on the Karabakh conflict. Is this a sign of the failure of the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process?

For the time being, the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process has stalled. With its protocol-based reconciliation initiative, Turkey tried, for some time, to maintain "constructive ambiguity" about whether progress in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict was a precondition for the Turkey-Armenia protocols to be ratified by the Turkish parliament. This situation created tensions between Turkey and Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia, and also Turkey and the US. Turkey appeared unpredictable. This situation also had consequences for Baku's relations with Western counterparts, because eventually it appeared as though Baku were the "spoiler" that had prevented Turkey and Armenia from reconciling.

Since mid to late 2009, Turkish decision-makers have underlined that the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement is linked with some form of positive change in the Karabakh deadlock. However, in Armenia, such a linkage is rejected adamantly, and Turkey is presented as being unreliable, and leading Armenia on. Indeed, had Turkey been straightforward about its conditions, it probably would have been more constructive. Already mistrust was a central problem in Turkey-Armenia relations. This problem is now exacerbated.

It also seems as though Turkey may have gambled on the prospect of Russia imposing a solution to the Karabakh conflict, which at least so far has not happened. Turkey and Russia have been in much closer cooperation in the past few years. It is still not clear, though, how far Russia will go in allowing Turkey's influence in the region to rise.

Nevertheless, the issue is not closed yet, so the verdict is not in. In the short term, results were not achieved, however in the mid to long term, the negative consequences of this initiative may wear off and it could still be possible to strike a virtuous cycle in the region.

Do you share the view that 2010 was an unsuccessful year for a Karabakh settlement? Do you believe that Azerbaijan and Armenia can solve bilateral problems by peaceful means?

Indeed, 2010 seems to have been an unsuccessful year. Expectations were raised with the intensification of meetings between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian presidents and in the run-up to the OSCE Astana Summit. However agreement on the Basic Principles was not achieved.

Besides the Minsk Group negotiations, the power balances and interplay between Turkey, the US and Russia are important external factors in determining whether the Karabakh resolution process moves forward. However, the burden will ultimately be on the two countries' leadership. More effort needs to be made to set realistic expectations among both country's public opinion. Not only the leadership but also the opposition in both countries is important in this process. Opposition or opinion leaders' exploiting nationalist sentiments and stirring expectations to the maximum only narrows the leaders' room for manoeuvre. But it takes two to tango and if both Armenia and Azerbaijan are not determined to go down this path in a result-oriented manner, neither of them on its own will be able to.

I expect that reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as is the case with reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, will be a long process, composed of incremental steps spread over time. Just as age-old national narratives in Turkey are increasingly challenged by intellectuals and a pluralistic and diverse spectrum of views can be heard, such a process will also be needed in the Caucasus for perceived threats or perceived national interests to be re-assessed and reset. In Turkey, much of the change in the decision-making sphere has been driven by brave civilians who make an effort to introduce new paradigms to the public debate and to put pressure on Ankara for new approaches. Though signing the diplomatic agreements is of course in the hands of the leaders, bringing about an environment conducive to such steps also depends on the intellectual elite. I think it is very important in Armenia too for self-critical thinking to develop, heightened ethnocentrism to be overcome, and liberal thoughts to find expression. This of course will not happen overnight, and it will be intrinsically tied to democratization and economic development, as well as dialogue with Turks and Azerbaijanis who also represent a constructive, win-win mentality. Though Turkish intellectuals are taking the lead, as they should, region-wide reconciliation will inevitably be a dialectic process if it is to rest on strong foundations.

Leyla Tagiyeva



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