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Azerbaijan: Turkey Pursues Ambiguous Ties

  • Michael Lelyveld

Turkish aircraft visiting Azerbaijan have been portrayed alternately as an aerobatic group and a squadron of warplanes. The two countries seem to be willing to have it both ways following last month's Caspian confrontation with Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 28 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's ambiguous signal of support for Azerbaijan over the weekend has stirred passions in both Baku and Tehran.

The two-day visit to Azerbaijan by the Turkish chief of General Staff, General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, was portrayed on the one hand as an event that had been scheduled for a year to mark a military school graduation.

According to this low-key interpretation, the squadron of fighter jets that also flew over Baku on the occasion was nothing more than a demonstration by the "Turkish Stars," an aerobatics team that has performed in many countries before.

But the event, coming one month after an Iranian gunboat threatened two Azerbaijani survey ships in disputed Caspian waters, also carried the connotation of a show of solidarity and force. Whether it was previously planned or not, the visit highlighted the closeness between Baku and Ankara.

Both Turkey and Azerbaijan seemed content to have it both ways.

Following an expression of "concern" by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, Turkey's Embassy in Tehran dismissed fears about the presence of the aircraft as "baseless," saying the planes had no military capability.

Novruz Mammadov, foreign relations adviser to Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev, was also quoted by the "Turkish Daily News" as saying that the air show had no political aim. Cooperation with Turkey "is not against any third country," Mammadov stressed.

But in comments carried by Azerbaijan's Turan news agency, Mammadov struck a more defiant note, saying, "Azerbaijan is a sovereign country, and it has the right to cooperate with any country of the world." The position was underscored with ethnically linked Turkey, with which Azerbaijan follows a "one nation-two states' principle," Mammadov said.

In words aimed primarily at Armenia, Aliyev said that military relations with Turkey had turned into "strategic cooperation," adding that Turkish forces were strong enough "to resist the biggest forces of the world," the Anatolia news agency reported.

While Turkish government officials were careful, the BBC reported that the planes were on a mission to "back up (the) Azeri position."

The British news network quoted an unnamed senior Azerbaijani official as saying that the visit was "a show of Turkish force in Azerbaijan's conflict with Iran." It also cited a retired Turkish general, Veli Kucuk, who said, "Azerbaijan's pain also affects us, and therefore we should remove that pain."

Former Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, head of the True Path Party, also praised her country's effort to preserve Azerbaijan's "sovereignty and independence."

The speeches reflected the sentiment that the Caspian confrontation was not simply about the long-stalled issue of how to divide the Caspian and Iran's claim to what Azerbaijan calls its Alov oil field. The issue now seems to have moved on to Azerbaijan's relative strength to deal with Iran as a credible power.

On 26 August, the English-language "Tehran Times" reacted angrily to the event in Baku. The paper said that Turkey's ambassador had been summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry to receive a protest against "the adventurous interference of Turkey in Iran-Azerbaijan relations" and "the political stunts staged by Turkish generals." The report was not carried by the official news agency IRNA, however.

The reaction may be in response to some of the more sweeping conclusions drawn by Azerbaijani commentators. The newspaper "Zerkalo" was especially outspoken, calling the visit a "warning" to Azerbaijan's enemies. "Zerkalo" said: "This warning cannot be regarded as purely 'Turkish.' In any case, NATO is behind it." The paper also quoted former Aliyev adviser Vafa Guluzade, a longtime advocate of a NATO presence, saying, "A downpour starts with a drop."

While governments and diplomats may see the benefit of making their points through ambiguity, the Caspian situation remains sensitive and open to incitement on all sides.

On 24 August, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared his readiness to attend a Caspian summit in Turkmenistan in October. But yesterday, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov announced that the meeting would be postponed indefinitely due to the country's 10th anniversary celebrations.

The cancellation may leave even more opportunities for discord in the Caspian. Cool heads will be needed to keep the situation under control.