That independence was very short-lived (2 years), and after decades under the direct influence of Bolshevist Russia, Azerbaijan became independent again in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR.
As we turn the pages of history, the last six months gave us as Azerbaijanis perhaps the most glorious days of the last two hundred years. However, the Azerbaijanis have always claimed greatness (even after the defeat in the First Karabakh war in 1994) and felt that they were part of some great force. Many Azerbaijanis have hopes, dreams and aspirations to unite with the Azerbaijanis living in Iran and build a great Azerbaijan… This may be because they consider themselves descendants of Shah Ismail, and because the Safavid dynasty, which ruled the territory of modern Iran, modern Azerbaijan and surrounding areas, was of Turkic origin. However, after Safavid Shah Ismail I seized Tabriz, he called himself Shah of Azerbaijan and Shahinshah of Iran. This meant that Azerbaijan was territorially part of the Iranian state, there were kings who ruled different territories at that time, and Ismail was a king over these kings. However, the Safavid dynasty was able to rule this area only between 1501 and 1747 (Nadir Shah Afshar, who put an end to the Safavid rule in 1736, was of Turkic origin as well. After his assassination in 1747, the Iranian state apparatus was divided, and various khanates were formed in the territory of Azerbaijan).
The Treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay signed in 1813 and 1828 put the territory of the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan (then local khanates) completely under the control of the Russian Empire. The remaining Azerbaijani lands in Iran have always been part of the Iranian state. The Russians tried to hide the Turkic identity of the people living in Azerbaijan, to relegate it to the background, to erase their roots and traces. To this end, they came up with different names, such as “Tatar”, etc. They also abolished the religious organization (led by Catholicos) of Christian Albanians (in order to fully Armenianize it and present it as the Armenian church).
They also wanted to build a wall between the Azerbaijani ethnic identity and the Turkic ethnic identity. However, no matter how many of us are ethnically Turkic, the Azerbaijanis today should not be regarded as simply Turks. Because even though Azerbaijanis of Turkic origin make up more than 90% of the Azerbaijani population, the word “Azerbaijani” also applies to citizens of non-Turkic origin. In short, we are all Azerbaijanis. But how sincere and real is the feeling of brotherhood that we, as Azerbaijanis, have towards the Turkish Turks? Today, it is more pronounced than ever. This is due to the strategic peak the Azerbaijan-Turkey military, political and economic relations have reached. However, let’s think back to such historical facts as the Safavid-Ottoman wars, the occupation of Azerbaijani (Safavid/Iranian) lands by the Ottomans, the lowest level of interaction between the Turkish and Azerbaijani peoples in general during the Soviet era, Turkey’s skeptical attitude towards the Azerbaijani state during the collapse of the Soviet Union, their reluctance to send military aid to Azerbaijan during the First Karabakh War, their raising in 2009-2010 the issue of reopening the border with Armenia closed as part of the strong measures taken against the Armenians after the Khojaly genocide, the short-term Turkish-Armenian rapprochement that went down in history as football diplomacy, and the Azerbaijani government’s harsh response to the Turkish government regarding that rapprochement. These are part of our history, too…
However, against the background of all these historical events, a simple truth emerges: the Ottomans, the Safavids, Turkey, Azerbaijan—whatever you call them, the majority of the population of these countries were and are Oghuz Turks. Therefore, these Turks, who share the same origin, the same (excluding minor differences) religion, language and culture, despite inevitable occasional clashes, have generally maintained a brotherly relationship with each other, always being there for each other in the hour of need. Is there a family where two brothers never fight? For example, the Ottomans played a significant role in ensuring the independence and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan in 1918, especially in the liberation of Baku from foreign invaders. After World War I, during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the new Turkish Republic, Azerbaijan stood by their side in the difficult moments they faced. Although the rule of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic at that time had already ended and the authority had been handed over to the Bolsheviks, there was still a spiritual bond between the peoples of Soviet Azerbaijan and Turkey. Fighting the Western imperialists at the time, Turkey received oil, weapons and other aid from Soviet Russia and Soviet Azerbaijan. All the Armenian claims and pressure notwithstanding, Turkey also fulfilled its moral duty to Azerbaijan by acting as guarantor of Nakhchivan staying under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan in the 1921 Treaties of Moscow and Kars. Turkey was the first country to officially recognize Azerbaijan after it gained independence in 1991. The current level of political, economic, military and cultural cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan is more than enough to call these relations fraternal.
If we look at history, we can see that the Turkish-Russian rapprochement ultimately benefitted Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan being forced to choose one of the sides had the opposite effect. For example, the first post-Ottoman Turkish-Russian rapprochement, as I said, was crucial in deciding the fate of Nakhchivan in favor of Azerbaijan.
In particular, there have been and probably will be those who do not always welcome the Turkish-Russian rapprochement initiated by Ataturk, not only now, but at all times. For example, the fact that the building of the first Soviet embassy in Turkey was set on fire in 1922 is a clear indication of this. However, interestingly, not only did this incident failed to hinder the relations between the two countries, it actually gave impetus to their further rapprochement.
The role of Ataturk in the political and economic rapprochement between the two countries is particularly noteworthy. This rapprochement resulted in the development of industrial production in Turkey. Interestingly, thanks to Russia’s assistance in the building of Turkish industry (namely, the first industrial facilities), the share of the Turkish industrial sector in total GDP in the 1930s exceeded 18%. However, since Turkey had a conflict with the Soviets over the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits in 1936 and its relations with the Soviets deteriorated due to its reluctance to side with the USSR in World War II, after the Turkey-USSR relations were severed completely with the USSR’s territorial claims to Turkey under Stalin (had these claims been fulfilled, the territory of Georgia would have increased by 8% and the territory of Armenia by 80%), it turned to the Western bloc and became a member of the US-led NATO (1952). After Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov issued a note stating that he had no territorial claims against Turkey, but it was already a done deal and Turkey had become a member of the Western world. However, this membership did not promise Turkey industrial development. On the contrary, Turkey’s industrial sector dropped to around 10.9% of GDP in the 1960s. Although Turkey is a member of the Western bloc, it faced double Western standards in the Cyprus issue in the 1960s, and a letter from US President Johnson in 1964 “opened the eyes” of the Turks. For the first time in history, Turkey decided to defend its interests against the interests of the United States and to defend its right to pursue an independent foreign policy. Thus, Turkey began to restore relations with the Soviets.
Turkey is a regional actor, it has its own interests and ambitions. If bigger interests require sacrificing smaller ones, Turkey will probably do it. Just like Russia. Russia is also a regional actor claiming globalization. It too has exceptional interests with regard to its “inner circle” and no intention to sacrifice these interests for anything. Therefore, we must correctly assess the geographical reality, the political situation, such as the location in the South Caucasus at the crossroads of Turkish and Russian interests, and pursue a foreign policy without falling into dreams and emotions. One of the main reasons for our defeat in the First Karabakh War was the reign of emotions and the lack of balance in our relations with Turkey and Russia. Elchibey’s nationalist and populist speeches caused countries of the world to take a hard line against Azerbaijan. Elchibey wanted to see Azerbaijan whole, the South and North united. As Azerbaijanis, we can all wish for this. Just like the Armenians of Karabakh want to be united with Armenia. However, the claims of the Iranian Azerbaijanis to secede from Iran and tear off part of its territory aggravate Iran even more than the claims of the Karabakh Armenians to divide the Azerbaijani lands aggravate us. Moreover, it would not be logical or beneficial for Azerbaijan to claim part of the territory of the millennia-old Iranian state that was ruled by Turkic dynasties for only a few hundred years. We can voice this desire only in conversations with friends in cafés, shouting out, “Long live the united Azerbaijan!”
However, these voices cannot gain any legitimate, legal, international shape and content. Otherwise, the owners of those voices will suffer the fate of Elchibey. Another fact. Elchibey relied heavily on Turkey. But as we know, no military aid came from Turkey then. Speaking in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller said, “If the Armenians occupy Nakhchivan, then Turkey must declare war on Armenia.” However, shortly after the announcement, Russian Defense Minister Grachev said, “If Turkey intervenes militarily in Nakhchivan, it will lead to a third world war,” and so Turkey did not intervene, not only in Karabakh, but also in Nakhchivan, whose guarantor it was by the 1921 treaties. In return, Turkey contented itself with providing political support to Azerbaijan, banning “humanitarian aid” to Armenia through its territory starting from March 27, 1993, and deciding to close its borders with Armenia. Those borders are still closed today.
Only after Heydar Aliyev came to power in October 1993 and established relations with Russia and balanced the foreign policy did Turkey dare to help Azerbaijan. 50,000 Turkish soldiers were stationed on the Armenian-Turkish border, which prevented the Armenians from advancing further and facilitated Azerbaijan’s successful counter-offensive operations in late 1993. For this reason, in December 1993, the Azerbaijani troops were able to liberate half of Fizuli and the village of Jojug-Marjanly in Jabrayil with Operation Horadiz. Balanced policy has come to our rescue again. Today, as a result of this balanced policy, 7 districts occupied by Armenians and Shusha and Hadrut of Nagorno-Karabakh have been completely liberated from the enemy. If we can maintain this policy, we will get many more long-term strategic benefits. It is no coincidence that President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev did his best to reconcile the parties during the worst crisis in the history of the two countries (a political crisis that grew into an economic one) after Turkey shot down a Russian military plane on November 24, 2015. Tensions between Turkey and Russia do not serve Azerbaijan’s interests at all. For example, when the United States tried to deliver military aid to Georgia through the Black Sea under the guise of humanitarian aid during the five-day Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Russia threatened Turkey, demanding not to allow it (according to the Montreux Convention, Turkey acts as the guarantor of security in the Black Sea). This led to a decline in economic relations, as Turkish goods were left to expire at the Russian border checkpoints and then sent back, and so on. There was even an explosion on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, after which oil was transported only through the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline for three weeks, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline was temporarily closed for security reasons. After the war, Russia put pressure on Turkey to open its borders with Armenia because of Georgia’s ban on the passage of Russian military vehicles (Russia, which had previously transported troops through Georgia to its military base in Armenia, decided to use the territory of Turkey for this purpose in the new reality), the economic relations somewhat deteriorated, reaching the point of crisis. However, Azerbaijan’s resolute position played a crucial role here and Turkey never opened its borders with Armenia.
It is clear that both Turkey and Russia, as strong regional powers, may clash from time to time to secure their interests. The main aim of Azerbaijan is to ensure its own interests and not to get involved in these conflicts, to maintain neutrality. Azerbaijan’s two main objectives are to return the occupied lands and ensure its territorial integrity and to preserve our political and economic independence. Azerbaijan has no regional interests and aims, and the implementation of regional projects is centered around these two objectives. Therefore, Turkey’s moves in the Middle East and Russia’s attacks on Georgia or Ukraine should not deter Azerbaijan from these objectives. Neutrality is the key. For example, after the crisis with Russia in 2015, Turkey expanded its relations with Ukraine dramatically (as an alternative to Russia in the possible future Turkish-Russian confrontation), raising it to the level of military-strategic cooperation. This, of course, does not serve Russia’s interests.
If Azerbaijan wants to ensure its interests in the future, it must prevent any possible confrontation between Turkey and Russia, avoid it and maintain neutrality in possible conflicts. Heydar Aliyev once said that we should not make any country our enemy. Despite the endless wars and conflicts between Turkey and Russia over the past few hundred years, their membership in different military-political blocs and their clashing interests in different regions, pressure from other countries, in particularly, has brought them closer together in the 21st century.
The following facts are the key indicators of this rapprochement:
- Erdoğan’s assertive statement on November 20, 2016 that Turkey should join Russia and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization instead of the European Union (although this may seem unrealistic now, stranger things have happened), the possibility of Turkey’s cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union in alliance with Russia, Turkey’s goal to increase bilateral trade with Russia to $100 billion annually;
- Turkey signed the S-400 agreement with Russia in 2019 despite the US threats to subject Turkey to CAATSA sanctions, which until now have been applied only to its most inveterate rivals and enemies, such as Iran, Russia and North Korea, its economic and political cooperation with Russia rising to the level of strategic cooperation;
- Economic relations between Turkey and Russia deteriorated to a historic low in early 2020 due to their rivalry in the Middle East (especially in Syria and Libya) and a number of other reasons, but the problems were resolved.
Given these and other factors, we can see that neither Turkey nor Russia will give up their strategic regional interests, that both have made major important moves to reconcile those interests to some extent, that the two countries are gradually pursuing a more independent foreign policy despite the critical pressure from Europe and the West (even as we speak, the EU has decided to take action by imposing on Turkey the tough sanctions it used on Russia), and it is against the backdrop of external pressure that they keep getting closer. Their closeness is very beneficial to us, and it is up to Azerbaijani masters of foreign policy to properly assess these points and make the most of them.