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TOLWire: Improved Turkish-Armenian Relations Worry Azerbaijan

Azerbaijani officials are concerned that a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement will weaken Baku’s position in the search for a settlement to the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. The maneuverings involving Turkey and Armenia have occurred amid reports of renewed fighting in Karabakh.

Turkey and Armenia, bitter adversaries for decades, have taken steps in recent weeks to normalize relations. In perhaps the most significant gesture, Turkish officials have raised the possibility of opening Turkey’s now closed border with Armenia. Such a possibility, which would end a Turkish embargo against Armenia, prompted immediate protests from Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev’s administration in Baku.

Since the start of the Karabakh conflict, Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s staunchest ally. Ankara’s decision to impose an economic embargo against Armenia, for instance, was driven by a desire to buttress Azerbaijan’s sagging war effort. At the time of the embargo’s imposition in 1993, Turkish officials vowed that the policy would remain in effect until a negotiated peace was in place and Armenian forces had withdrawn from occupied Azerbaijani territory.

Both those conditions have gone unfulfilled and peace talks remain stalemated. Over the last decade, Baku has viewed the Turkish embargo as one of the key means of exerting pressure on Armenia to compromise on the Karabakh issue. The potential lifting of the embargo, Azerbaijani officials fear, could encourage Armenian intransigence in peace talks.

Many ordinary Azeris in Baku would consider any Turkish action to ease the Armenian embargo tantamount to betrayal. “Armenia has not withdrawn from our land,” says Akif Ismaylov, a 55-year-old engineer, “so Turkey cannot break its promise and open the border with our rival. They would betray us this way.”

Turkish leaders have sought to reassure Baku that Ankara remains a committed ally. Turkey’s interior minister, Abdulkadir Aksu, visited Baku on 10 July to expressly reaffirm the alliance. According to Turkish and Azerbaijani media, Aksu reiterated Ankara’s strong support for Azerbaijan’s political aims concerning Karabakh, saying the “ongoing Armenian occupation” is a threat to regional stability.

Despite the recent moves toward rapprochement, local political analysts are not assuming that a Turkish move to open the border is a foregone conclusion. Indeed, some influential political forces in Armenia–in particular the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or Dashnaktsutiun–have expressed caution about the border opening, saying the potential for a large influx of Turkish goods could saturate the Armenian market, thus hampering the development of local business and manufacturing.

Turkey’s desire to normalize ties with Armenia is driven in large measure by Ankara’s desire to join the European Union. The EU has indicated that the normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties is a precondition for accession talks. Some political observers in Baku expect Azerbaijani officials to attempt to convince their Turkish counterparts that the lifting of the Armenian embargo would do little to enhance Ankara’s EU membership prospects. In the event that Azerbaijan is unsuccessful in getting Turkey to keep the embargo in place, Azerbaijani observers believe the special relationship between Baku and Ankara will be weakened.

As Ankara and Yerevan have mulled normalization, Karabakh has witnessed an escalation of violence. Armenian and Azerbaijani officials have accused each other of numerous ceasefire violations. The most prominent clash reportedly occurred on 28 June near the village of Garakhanbeyli in the Fizuli region. According to media reports, an Azerbaijani serviceman and lieutenant were killed in the fighting.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev has blamed Armenia for prompting the ceasefire violations. “This can be explained by Armenia’s desire to aggravate the situation in Azerbaijan in the run-up to presidential elections,” the foreign minister told ANS TV on 9 July. The issue of President Aliev’s health has injected an element of uncertainty into the presidential election, which is scheduled for October.

In Yerevan, Armenian officials hold Azerbaijan responsible for the recent hostilities. Armenian political observers have raised several theories concerning Baku’s motivation for stoking renewed confrontation. One holds that Aliev administration officials are interested in distracting the Azerbaijani public from the issue of Aliev’s health and seek to use the new clashes to rally support for the governing party as the election approaches. Another theory maintains that Azerbaijan wants to destabilize the situation in order to pave the way for the introduction of a U.S. or NATO peacekeeping force in the area.

By Fariz Ismailzade

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