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The Turkish opposition’s Azerbaijan policy: is a bipartisan consensus possible?

Turkey’s close relationship with its neighbour Azerbaijan is a well-known part of regional politics. However, these links remain centred on the relationship between the leaders of both nations. A clear consensus on Baku therefore still does not exist in domestic Turkish politics.

January 4, 2024 - Rahim Rahimov - Articles and Commentary

Azerbaijani flag flying in Istanbul. Photo: Merve Sahinn / Shutterstock

Özgur Özel, the newly-elected leader of Turkey’s main opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party) pledged on November 13th 2023 to reformat relations with Azerbaijan: “We have hurt friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan. We have made a mistake. It is all our fault.” Özel’s statement comes as a response to Azerbaijan’s rising significance in Turkish domestic politics. Addressing the deficit in the Turkish consensus on Baku will require effort from the CHP, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) and Azerbaijan. However, the likelihood of this scenario currently seems to be very low.

Baku and the CHP at odds

Earlier, Özel’s predecessor, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the presidential candidate for the CHP-led six-party opposition coalition, announced what he termed “the greatest project of [his] life” – the Turkic Road. The announcement came in the midst of the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections campaign on May 7th 2023. The project was intended to revive the historic Silk Road by connecting Turkey to Turkic countries in Central Asia. Passing through  Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, this route would go via Iran and then extend further into China.

Azerbaijan was missing from the list of countries involved in the Turkic Road. This immediately caused a public outcry in Azerbaijan. “A Turkic road without Azerbaijan?”, they asked. The answer to this question came from the Speaker of the Turkish Parliament Mustafa Şentop: “There can be no Turkic Road without Azerbaijan.” Others also rushed to lash out at Kılıçdaroğlu in the run-up to the elections. Then Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that “Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu owes an apology to Azerbaijan.”

Moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu’s Turkic Road idea was regarded in Baku as a jab at Azerbaijan’s Zangezur Corridor project. In the official discourse of Azerbaijan, the Zangezur Corridor will serve to unite the broader Turkic world, from Turkey to Central Asia through Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea. Kılıçdaroğlu’s initiative sounds to Baku like an alternative that would eventually eliminate the Zangezur Corridor and sideline Azerbaijan’s role as both a transit country and a Turkic nation.

Another statement that caused uproar in Azerbaijan had come from Kılıçdaroğlu’s foreign policy spokesperson, the former Turkish ambassador to Baku Ünal Çeviköz. During the Second Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, he had publicly stated that “Unfortunately, Turkey provides military assistance to Azerbaijan and reportedly transfers jihadist groups to Azerbaijan.” The spokesperson for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP, Ömer Çelik, called that statement an “immoral provocation against Turkey”.

Later, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev apparently told his Turkish counterpart that “I will never let this man [Ünal Çeviköz] through the door again.” Furthermore, Ünal Çeviköz had played a leading role in the preparation of the 2009 Zurich protocols to normalize Armenian-Turkish relations, much to the disappointment of Azerbaijan.

Turkish elections and the rise of the Azerbaijani factor in Turkish politics

Özel’s statements are symptomatic of the CHP’s rising awareness of the Azerbaijani factor in Turkish politics and less of a genuine change of outlook. They are not sufficient enough to see a move towards a bipartisan consensus on Azerbaijan. First, Özel had made pro-Azerbaijani statements months ahead of the CHP leadership election. This, first of all, may have ensured the support of those within the party, who have favoured improving ties with Azerbaijan. He defeated Kılıçdaroğlu with 812 votes to 536 in the second round of the party’s elections.

Second, but far more importantly, the pro-Azerbaijani turn represents acknowledgement that the Azerbaijani factor was a sensible consideration for voters in the 2023 elections. The margin between the two presidential candidates in both the first and second rounds was very close. While Erdoğan got 49.5 per cent of the vote versus his opponent’s 44.9 in the first, he received 52.16 per cent versus 47.84 in the second. Given such a narrow margin, each and every factor, including the Azerbaijani question, has mattered in the election results.

Furthermore, there have been accusations made against the Azerbaijani government that it has meddled in the elections in favour of Erdoğan and the AKP. A pre-election report from the Baku-affiliated Social Research Centre made the case for Azerbaijani public support for Erdoğan but portrayed it as a matter of national interest, not a “meddling attempt or influencing”. All these have made the Azerbaijani factor too vivid to ignore for the new CHP leadership.

Baku disinterested in engaging with the Turkish opposition

The Azerbaijani government is firmly allied with Erdoğan and the ruling AKP party, with Baku showing no sign of engaging with the CHP. Azerbaijan has encouraged a focus on the roles of both presidents in the development of the bilateral alliance. Ümit Yardım from Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Gelecek (Future) Party regards the dependence on individual leaders as risky for the future of relations. He subsequently emphasizes the importance of prioritizing relations between institutions. However, the Azerbaijani authorities continue to prioritize the role of individual leaders and their work with their governments in building and advancing ties with other nations.

Likewise, Baku expects exactly the same attitude from its foreign counterparts. Baku has been sceptical about relations with the Turkish opposition and tends to perceive such links as something a little bit short of an encroachment on state sovereignty. Erdoğan’s government clearly complies with this understanding. For example, some opposition figures have publicly complained that the Turkish embassy in Baku no longer invites them to events.

While Azerbaijan’s significance for Turkish domestic politics is important, Turkey also plays a key part in Azerbaijani domestic politics. Incidentally, AKP official Ömer Çelik said on November 28th that the US had demanded that Ankara withhold support from Azerbaijan in exchange for a deal to supply F16 and F35 fighter jets to Turkey. Ankara did not accept this deal. The timing of this statement follows an eruption of tensions between Washington and Baku due to the US suspension of a waiver on Amendment 907 of the Freedom Support Act. The amendment bans the US from providing any direct aid to the Azerbaijani government. Çelik’s statement reinforces Azerbaijani public support for the government in tensions with the US, which only highlights Turkey’s significance in the domestic politics of Azerbaijan.

To conclude, Özgur Özel’s initiative alone falls short of leading to any substantial change. For now, Azerbaijan’s significance will definitely persist within Turkish domestic politics. But the lack of a bipartisan Turkish consensus on Azerbaijan could present a risk to the bilateral alliance from a more long-term perspective. Overall, the CHP and AKP’s instrumentalization of the Azerbaijani question in domestic politics against each other is more risky than their lack of consensus.

Rahim Rahimov is a Baku-based member of the Tbilisi-based Association of European Studies for the Caucasus. @r_rahimov

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