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What does Medvedev's visit to Ankara say about Azerbaijani-Turkish Relations?

19 May 2010 [10:00] - TODAY.AZ
Most of the expected signing ceremonies between Azerbaijan and Turkey during Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to Baku on May 17 did not materialize. There were few who doubted till the last minute that there will be important final agreements especially regarding natural gas. But both President Aliyev and Erdogan did praise the developments on this front, and expressed their belief that deals could be signed in few weeks, during President Aliyev’s visit to Turkey in early June.

It is likely that the countries will agree on the amount of the additional payment to Azerbaijan for its under-priced gas sold to Turkey since 2008 through the Baku-Erzurum pipeline, as envisioned by the initial treaty. The nations are also expected to seal important deals regarding the fate of Shah Deniz II gas and its transport into European markets either through Nabucco or alternative pipelines such as ITGI or TAP.

However, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the determination and goodwill of the parties concerning such possible deals. In the last couple of months, Turkey and Azerbaijan have suddenly and unhappily realized that they have quite some potential to negatively surprise each other. Although their relations have started to normalize since late 2009 and have left behind an unwanted chapter after April 24 passed without unacceptable disappointments from the Obama administration in the U.S., it will take a little more to overcome the mutual distrust.
But there have been two important developments between Russia and Turkey during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Ankara on May 11 and 12 that already indicate that Azerbaijani-Turkish gas deals will follow a smooth and productive path in revitalizing the countries’ relations.

In fact, it is the lack of developments between Russia and Turkey related to natural gas that helps one make such predictions. Medvedev and his Turkish counterparts signed 17 out of 25 planned agreements. Among the eight that have not been signed, there must have been two issues that were about natural gas.

The first of these non-deals was the conspicuous silence regarding the Russian-suggested South Stream pipeline, seen as the main rival to Nabucco. Some Russian sources claimed that there was an agreement in principle, but certain clauses such as the issue of re-export of the Russian gas by Turkey could not be agreed upon. There are doubts on whether this was about disagreements on technicalities or whether the Turkish side thought that giving in to Russia on this issue would have been too much. South Stream not only means a potential blow to Nabucco and a negative influence on the less-than-perfect Turkish-Azerbaijani relations, but also something that Ukraine would not be happy about and the Europeans and Americans would not praise much.

Expected improvements on the fate of Shah Deniz II gas (to be transported to European markets through Turkey) seem to be more of a cause of the failure of an agreement on South Stream than its consequence. But whichever direction the causal arrow goes, this failure is a good indicator of the seriousness of Azerbaijan and Turkey to move on with the strategic energy partnership’s natural-gas pillar.

The second gas non-deal between Russia and Turkey was the countries’ inability to negotiate a lower price for Blue Stream gas, for which Turkey has been paying around $400. Despite speculations that the Russian side could agree to a 10% discount, there was no breakthrough. This non-deal too appears to be more than a technicality. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin plainly stated that unless Turkey stops planning to look for alternative sources of gas, Gazprom will find it difficult to reduce the current price. The lack of agreement on this front is an additional indication of Turkey’s possible willingness to buy more Azerbaijani gas.

This also gives Azerbaijan bargaining leverage vis-à-vis the price of gas it sells to Turkey. True, Baku will likely to stick to the agreed upon-price in principle with Ankara, believed to be in the range of $200 to $300. Yet Azerbaijani generosity in the face of Russian intransigence will at least add more tangible support to the brotherhood discourse seen by some as increasingly hollow. After all, “one nation, two states” is not just rhetoric, and the relationship is not a one-way street. If some circles in Turkey continue to believe that they have incurred costs because of the support for Azerbaijan’s occupied territories, Azerbaijan could always draw a quick comparison between the prices of Azerbaijani and Russian gas sold to Turkey.
Natural gas is not the only area at issue in the recent Russian-Turkish negotiations helping to make predictions about Azeri-Turkish relations.

The deal on visa-free travel between Russia and Turkey could be the last push for Azerbaijan and Turkey to end their visa hurdle completely. It is starting to look more and more incomprehensible how visas could be a problem between these two countries when it is not the case with Russia, a nation that can hardly be put into the same “oneness” category with Turkey. True, it is not the presidents who prepare the deals, and it might have been little late for the two countries’ bureaucrats to get it ready by the time of Erdoğan’s visit. But anything less than an unequivocal support for the lifting of the visa restrictions between Turkey and Azerbaijan in coming weeks would be very surprising.

It is interesting to observe that Turkish-Russian meetings during Medvedev’s visit have been accompanied by Azerbaijan as if on an “invisible seat.” Baku has both influenced the nature of the deals between Ankara and Moscow and will have to adapt to the developments on May 11 and 12. But almost everything that has happened between Russia and Turkey was already indicative of the improving relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, or, at least, as with the visa issue, should be capitalized upon to heal the most serious rupture in the relations of the two countries since 1990s.

Dr. Elnur Soltanov
Assistant professor at Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy


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