By Shahin Abbasov
Unlike its neighbors, Azerbaijan has long shied away from close partnerships with either the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the Russia-dominated Collective Security Organization. A recent military compact with Turkey, however, suggests that Baku may be preparing to change that strategic game plan.
The Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support, ratified by Azerbaijan’s parliament on December 21, pledges that both Turkey and Azerbaijan will support each other “using all possibilities” in the case of a military attack or “aggression” against either of the countries. Plans to upgrade hardware for joint military operations, cooperation in “military-technical” areas, joint military exercises and training sessions are also specified, but details are not provided.
The agreement would last for 10 years and would be renewed by default for another decade if neither side expresses a wish to end it. The Turkish parliament is expected to vote on ratifying the deal by the end of January, Trend news agency reported.
Such cooperation, at first glance, does not come as a surprise. Ever since Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, Turkey, a member of NATO, has been Baku’s main military ally, helping to rebuild the Azerbaijani army after the disastrous 1988-1994 war with Armenia over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, and maintaining close ties with its military defense complex.
But, to avoid irritating the Kremlin and putting the kibosh on a Russia-brokered resolution for Nagorno Karabakh, Baku has never formalized that relationship via a military pact.
The August 2010 signature of a military cooperation deal between Russia and Armenia, along with stagnating peace talks with Armenia, removed that hesitation, however, Azerbaijani analysts say. Both developments “showed that these hopes [for a Russia-brokered breakthrough on Karabakh] were groundless . . .” argued Eldar Namazov, a former foreign policy aide to the late President Heydar Aliyev.
The agreement, Azerbaijan’s first such pact with another country, indicates that Baku is preparing for a possible worst-case scenario — the collapse of peace talks and the resumption of fighting with Armenia over Karabakh, Namazov said.
A massive surge in military spending contributes to that perspective. In October 2010, Azerbaijan’s parliament approved a military budget that is larger than Armenia’s entire state budget – at 2.5 billion manats, or roughly $3.5 billion, it ranks as the biggest in the South Caucasus.
Clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers increased last year as well; by the end of 2010, four Azerbaijani servicemen had been killed in frontline shootings, and several more wounded.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has not been shy about emphasizing the country’s military buildup in talks with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. At a January 18 meeting with Sargsyan in Munich, Aliyev repeated past statements that Azerbaijan has “the full right to liberate the occupied Azerbaijani territories by military force.”
If the Minsk process “remains without result, our hopes for these negotiations will be exhausted,” Izvestia reported Aliyev as saying.
A senior official for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the implications of the agreement with Turkey for Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, asserting only that “Baku conducts an independent foreign policy and bases its decisions on its own national interests.”
One analyst, however, dismisses any speculation that the agreement with Turkey indicates that Baku is preparing to go to war with Armenia over Karabakh. Pending energy projects – the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the Southern Corridor gas line to the European Union – are “the major priority for Azerbaijan” now, commented Elhan Shahinoglu, director of the Atlas research center.
Rather, the deal appears to be an attempt “to get some guarantees of Ankara’s support in case of a further escalation” of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Shahinoglu said. “In these circumstances, it was a smart move by Baku . . . “ he continued.
Already one form of cooperation foreseen by the agreement – the joint production of military equipment – has started to get underway. A December 2010 memorandum signed between the Ministry of Defense and Turkish arms manufacturer Otokar foresees starting things off with the production infantry weapons, and later moving on to ammunition.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Zaman newspaper reported on January 5 that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to visit Baku in March or April to take part in the first session of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council, a body which will work on coordinating various aspects of the two countries’ military, economic, energy and foreign policies.
Not surprisingly given Turkey’s longstanding partnership with Baku, Azerbaijani politicians – opposition and pro-government alike — enthusiastically welcomed the military cooperation pact.
The agreement with Turkey, however, has its limitations. Turkey’s military is not obliged to intervene automatically in the case of aggression against Azerbaijan; such intervention would occur after “additional consultations.”
Nor do analysts believe that the agreement makes it any more likely that Baku will allow Turkey to open a military base within Azerbaijan.
Although the agreement with Turkey is seen as a tit-for-tat for Russia’s deal with Armenia, Baku is sensitive to the need to avoid irritating Russia and Iran unnecessarily by inviting a NATO member to install itself on Azerbaijani territory.
Nor does Baku want to have a Turkish base in Azerbaijan just for the sake of having a Turkish base, asserted Namazov and Shahinoglu.
“Azerbaijan can consider the deployment of Turkish soldiers in the Nakchivan Autonomous Republic to secure its rear in case of war with Armenia, but only if Baku really decided to solve the Karabakh conflict by force,” said Shahinoglu.
Namazov agreed. Baku’s reluctance to invite Turkey to set up shop in Azerbaijan would only change “if a new war in Karabakh becomes inevitable,” he predicted.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation – Azerbaijan.