Turkey and Iran Tread Softly with Azerbaijan Election Reaction
A EurasiaNet Commentary by Alman Mir Ismail

Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections may have met with criticism from international organizations and Western countries, but Turkey and Iran have given the voting process a solid thumbs-up. Their position, largely driven by geopolitical and economic considerations, has angered the domestic opposition in Azerbaijan and, conceivably, could put pressure on the Azerbaijani government to respond in kind in future.

In the case of Iran, Azerbaijan’s powerful southern neighbor, geopolitics plays the leading role. Iran’s primary objective in the region for the past several years has been to block growing US influence and fight against international pressure for Iran to abandon its nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Plans announced two months ago for construction of two US radar stations in Azerbaijan – with one on the Azerbaijani-Iranian border – have furthered those concerns.

“In this situation, Iran desperately needs Azerbaijan's support or at least its neutrality,” commented Tabib Huseynov, a local political analyst.

The Iranian government’s desire to please the governing Yeni Azerbaijani Party appeared to motivate the assessment of Azerbaijan’s elections given by Afshar Suleymani, the Iranian ambassador to Baku, who described the vote as “very democratic and orderly” aside from “some minor technical problems.”

“Friendship and cooperation between Azerbaijan and Iran is not directed against any other country,” stated Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki during a November 28 official visit to Azerbaijan, ATV reported. “Both countries will not allow other forces to damage our relations.”

Azerbaijani opposition members often single out religion as the means by which Iran could attempt to influence Azerbaijan’s domestic politics. Though Iran has traditionally supported pro-Islamic parties in Azerbaijan, this role has become less apparent since the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan was banned in 1996.

In a November 4 interview with the online information agency Axis Globe, Musavat Party chairman Isa Gambar commented that Tehran uses religious education in Iran and charitable activities in Azerbaijan to maintain a foothold in Azerbaijani society. “Tehran acts not as openly as Moscow. It has its own means.”

Local political experts such as Ilgar Mammadov have argued that Baku’s response to Iran could come in the form of “not permitting US bases in the case of an Iranian-US war.” The Aliyev government has long maintained that it will not agree to US bases in Azerbaijan; however, it has asserted that this is a decision taken independently of outside influences.

Turkey, on the other hand, has taken a more passive approach to Azerbaijan. Close ties exist between Ankara and President Ilham Aliyev’s administration thanks in part to joint economic projects, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) gas pipelines and the planned Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway.

Overall, Turkey’s influence seemed relatively insignificant compared to the activities of Russia and the US during the election process. This comes as a surprise if considered the valuable role of Turkey in Azerbaijan’s development in the 1990s. During that period, Turkey provided much visible political and military support to Azerbaijan and agreed on major economic projects, such as the BTC and BTE pipelines.

Local analysts see this as a “romantic” period for relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, when pragmatic issues were set aside. With Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Ergodan’s arrival to power in 2002, greater emphasis has been placed on economic issues than on the more political objective of building a pan-Turkic brotherhood with Baku.

With one eye on its membership bid for the European Union, however, Ankara sent clear signals to Baku that it wanted to see democratic elections held. Both President Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul urged for greater transparency in the voting process. “Azerbaijan will be much stronger if the elections are conducted in an orderly and transparent manner,” Gul said, Turan news agency reported.“Azerbaijan’s position on the international stage would be strengthened [if transparent and orderly elections are held].”

The Azerbaijani opposition itself has very close contacts and sympathizers in Turkey; opposition bloc Azadlig (Freedom) leaders Ali Kerimli and Isa Gambar frequently visited the country during the campaigning season.

According to information from Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission, more than 10 candidates for parliament had degrees from Turkish universities; one, Ahmet Ardic, a candidate from Baku’s Sabail district, was the first Turkish-born naturalized Azerbaijani citizen to run for elective office. None of these candidates won seats, however.

Nonetheless, Turkey appeared willing to only go so far in pressing its point about democratic reform with Azerbaijan. On November 7, the Turkish Foreign Ministry expressed reserved pleasure over the Azerbaijani parliamentary elections. “The official election results and reports from election observers, particularly observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe . . . will shed light on the way the elections took place,” the ministry said in a statement. In addition to a 52-member Turkish observation team that took part in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer mission, 100 Turkish parliamentarians and representatives of non-governmental organizations monitored the election as well. “Irrespective of these evaluations, the protection of tranquility and stability in Azerbaijan is our main wish,” the ministry statement concluded.

Some analysts have long speculated that Azerbaijani support for Northern Cyprus comes in return for Turkey’s support for the administration of President Ilham Aliyev.

The opposition, however, puts it down to a case of distraction. In the same interview with Axis Globe, Gambar characterized Turkey’s role in Azerbaijan’s elections as “much more passive than [that of] our other neighbors.” Turkey’s goal of integration with the European Union has distracted it from events in the South Caucasus, Gambar argued. Political analyst Huseynov, however, takes a different tact: relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan have not diminished in intensity, he commented, “but they have changed qualitatively.”

Editor’s Note: Alman Mir Ismail is a freelance political analyst based in Baku.

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