Turkey Pushes Presidential System: The View from Azerbaijan

Azerbaijanis used to hope that Turkey would gradually help Azerbaijan transition to democracy. But with Turkey’s push towards a presidential system, it looks like Azerbaijan is ‘helping’ Turkey transition to authoritarianism.

A supporter holds a flag depicting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a pro-government demonstration in Ankara, Turkey, July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo
A supporter holds a flag depicting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a pro-government demonstration in Ankara, Turkey, July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo
A supporter holds a flag depicting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a pro-government demonstration in Ankara, Turkey, July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

Azerbaijan is inherently connected to Turkey through linguistic, historical, cultural, economic and political bonds, and any fundamental developments in Turkey have traditionally affected Azerbaijan, as well.

Turkey was the closest ally of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918-1920) and provided decisive military support to liberate Baku from the Russian-Armenian forces in September of 1918 and supported the establishment of the republic after the dissolution of the Russian empire.

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey was again the only country whom Azerbaijanis – both its political leadership and the general public – expected to stand with them against the aggression of neighbouring Armenia.

Turkey was also seen by many Azerbaijanis as a worthy secular democracy model to be emulated. In the very beginning of its independence, Baku preferred the Turkish model of governance to the Iranian model; these were the only two alternatives for the new-born State. An Azerbaijani political expert


about this choice Baku made in early 1990s:

“When Azerbaijan restored its independence, the political elite of the country faced a strategic choice: to model the country after the Islamic Republic of Iran and thus integrate Azerbaijan into the Muslim/Asian community or model Azerbaijan after the Turkish model, integrating the country into the European community. Russia was not an option due to high anti-Russian sentiments among the Azerbaijani population after the violent crackdown of protesters in Baku on January 20, 1990 by Russian military forces. Azerbaijani political leadership made a conscious choice to develop the country after the Turkish model, that is, democratic governance, secular regime, and integration into Euro-Atlantic structures”.

The Azerbaijani people were hoping that with the assistance of Turkey, the country could build a similar model of governance in Azerbaijan.

Turkey Failed to Live Up to Most of These Expectations

Although Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in 1993 in protest of the occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenian forces, Azerbaijan did not receive any substantial assistance from Ankara in its largely asymmetric struggle against the Russian-supported Armenian forces.

The second president of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey,

later complained that:


“Amidst the Armenian military attacks against Kalbajar, I asked Turkey, Iran, and Russia for helicopters to save civilians who had fled their homes into forests to escape from the Armenian forces and who were still in danger. None of them responded to our requests”.

In later years, the bilateral relations between the sides rapidly developed: Turkey invested large sums of money in the Azerbaijani economy, and provided military training to Azeri soldiers, humanitarian assistance to the refugees and internally displaced people.

However, again the Turkish leadership dashed the hopes of most Azerbaijanis by avoiding any criticism of growing authoritarianism under the Aliyev regime. Prioritizing the governmental level of relations, the Turkish authorities have not demonstrated any support to civil society nor opposition parties in Azerbaijan.

During the reign of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey, the non-state dimensions of Turkey’s Azerbaijani policies have gradually disappeared. The presidential and parliamentary elections of Azerbaijan, though criticized by most international organizations, received a

“silent acceptance”

from the Turkish ruling elite. Ankara has never criticized the oppressive crackdown of the Aliyev regime on the political opposition and mass arrest of civil society activists. This silence of the Turkish leadership further increased as Turkey set to transform itself into an autocracy, becoming a victim of Erdogan’s ambitions.

Turkey’s Growing Authoritarianism and Potential Transition to the Presidential System Has Destroyed its Image as a Model to be Emulated and its Role as a Promoter of Democracy in Azerbaijan.

The political instability, frequent terror attacks, shrinking economy, growing influence of religion on society, and against this background, the Turkish President Erdogan’s unceasing efforts to transform the country into his own private kingdom, are being watched by Azerbaijani citizens with deep disillusionment.

In Azerbaijan, several days after the Turkish parliament began debates on the transition to the presidential system, many shared this concerns on social media:

An Azerbaijani citizen: “Turkey was our hope. We thought that Turkey would help Azerbaijan to build democracy. Unfortunately, on the contrary, Turkey is now going to look more like Azerbaijan”.

A leader of the opposition party Musavat

: “It looks like Erdogan wants with one popular vote to take the power that Aliyev has yet to obtain after three rounds of referendums”.

A civil society member

: “If no stronger resistance appears from society, that will be the end of democracy in Turkey – another authoritarian regime will be guaranteed in the region. Therefore, it matters not only for Turkey or Turkish people but for all other nations in the region”.

Although government members have not made an official statement about the upcoming constitutional changes in Turkey, some experts who are close to the government have already praised the draft of the new constitution.

For example, Natiq Miri, Director of Azerbaijani National Centre for Strategic Studies, pointed out in an



“I don’t think that the constitutional amendment is against Turkey’s national interests. In order to overcome the threats to Turkey’s very existence, it needs to be under a very strong government. Until now the Turkish leadership has failed to build control over all the bodies of the government. Its intelligence services have been serving the intelligence services of external powers. Today Turkey needs a strong presidential system to establish control over all these governmental institutions.”

In fact, it may be more accurate to say that Turkey’s transition to the super-presidential system corresponds to the interests of the Azerbaijani ruling elite. The fact that Turkey possess a huge influence on the public opinion in Azerbaijan, not least because Turkish media channels are widely watched by Azerbaijanis thanks to the linguistic proximity, is the reason why for Baku, a Turkey governed by a similarly authoritarian regime is a more desirable partner. On the contrary, a Turkey that is a Western-style democracy and seeks to promote democracy in the region might be a headache for the Aliyev regime.

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