BAKU (AFP)–On a windswept hilltop looking down at the Azerbaijani capital Baku, Turkish flags flutter over a monument that testifies to decades of close ties between the two nations. Surrounding an obelisk bearing the Turkish crescent and star, stone blocks carry the names of dozens of Turkish soldiers who died while fighting for Azerbaijan’s independence before it was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1922.
For Turks and Azerbaijanis, who share close ethnic and linguistic roots, the monument is a symbol of what officials in both countries frequently describe as “brotherly” relations.
So it came as a shock when Azerbaijan – angry over Ankara’s efforts at reconciliation with Armenia – removed the Turkish flags flying over the monument in October. After some soothing words from Ankara, the flags soon returned. But anger at Turkey is running deep in Azerbaijan, and tensions are threatening not only a partnership that has been crucial for both countries, but also Western interests in an area of great strategic importance.
Diplomats and analysts say resentment in Azerbaijan is aimed not only at NATO member Turkey for pursuing ties with Armenia, but also at the United States and Europe for pushing Ankara towards a deal.
That could see Azerbaijan turn away from nearly two decades of looking to the West, threatening vital energy supplies to Europe and sowing further instability in the volatile South Caucasus region between Russia and Iran.
“It’s not only Azerbaijan whose interests are put at risk by this ‘abruptive,’ not carefully prepared… rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia,” Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov told AFP in an interview.
The interests of Europe and the United States also stand to suffer, he said, while warning that “reactions from Azerbaijan will be even more harsh” if Turkey ratifies a deal to establish diplomatic ties and open its border with Armenia.
At the center of the dispute is the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which was trapped under Soviet Azeri rule for seventy years until it declared independence from the Soviet Union in the early 90s. Azerbaijan launched a war against Karabakh after the mountainous region claimed its freedom. The war ended in a cease-fire in 1994, with Karabakh’s indigenous Armenian population in control of their territory.
Negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh have been stalled for years and tensions remain high, with frequent fighting and deadly shootings along a fragile cease-fire line.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan over the Karabakh conflict, and Baku insists the border should not re-open until Armenia agrees to return liberated territories in Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. The United States and Europe had pushed for Ankara to reach a deal with Armenia earlier, making it appear that Baku’s interests have been set aside, said Vladimir Socor, a regional expert with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.
“Azerbaijan is justifiably irritated with Western policy on this issue,” he said. “Azerbaijan correctly feels that its own security concerns and the Karabakh issue are simply not being taken into account to a sufficient degree, if at all, by the United States and by the major European powers.”
Socor said that by ignoring Azerbaijan’s interests, Western powers are jeopardizing years of effort to gain influence in the strategic Caucasus region and to tap the vast energy reserves of the Caspian Sea.
Since gaining its independence with the Soviet collapse in 1991, Azerbaijan has been at the heart of Western efforts to transport oil and gas from the Caspian to Europe, decreasing Western reliance on Russian supplies.
Baku is the starting point for two major pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian, through Georgia and Turkey, to hungry European consumers. Efforts are underway to expand the network into Central Asia, and Azerbaijan is also considered a key potential supplier for the European Union’s flagship Nabucco gas pipeline.
But in the wake of the Armenia-Turkey deal, Azerbaijan has threatened to seek alternative export routes and in recent months has signed new supply deals with both Russia and Iran.
Azimov, the deputy foreign minister, said the West needs to realize that pushing for a deal between Turkey and Armenia without taking Baku’s interests into account will have consequences. “The question that needs to be asked is: Are we important? And if we are, then issues have to be solved in a way providing for all interests,” he said.
Among the Azerbaijani public, emotions are running high and analysts say the government will be under pressure to make sure Baku’s demands are not ignored.
Near to the hilltop memorial to slain Turkish soldiers, pensioner Ismael Mammedov expressed the frustration – and confusion – that many Azerbaijanis are feeling over Ankara’s move. “I don’t understand this, Turkey and Azerbaijan are supposed to be like brothers,” said Mammedov. “How can they abandon us?”