Turkey’s Referendum and Turkish-Azerbaijani Relations

Relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan are founded on mutual trust. But how will Turkey’s recent constitutional referendum affect relations between the two countries?

Relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan are founded on mutual trust.

Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s faithful ally in strengthening its independence and preserving its territorial integrity.

There exists a foundation of laws and conventions which strengthen these relations in the economy, matters of security and mutual aid. However, the April 16 referendum on constitutional reform in Turkey introduces new realities and cardinally alters the entire socio-political formation in Turkey.

According to voting results (51.41% for, 48.59% opposed), a presidential form of administration is being introduced in Turkey.

In practice this means that the president receives the right to issue decrees that carry force of law and which enter into force immediately, though a mechanism has been provided for lawmakers to annul them. Also, the head of the government is empowered to appoint vice presidents, ministers, and other highly-placed functionaries. The number of parliamentary deputies will be increased from 550 to 600, the age for candidacy as a deputy will be reduced from 25 to 18 years of age, and parliamentary and presidential elections will take place once every five years on one and the same day. Additionally, Erdogan has promised to bring back the death penalty in Turkey, after it was abolished in 2002 in order to enter the European Union.

On the whole, this means that the president is acquiring powers which enable him to be less dependent on public opinion; and taking into account the particulars of Erdogan’s present-day political heading and ambitions, we can expect that Turkish politics will become less predictable and more aggressive. There is little doubt that the referendum is a response to the attempt at a military coup in July of 2016.

The results of the referendum led to many thousands of protest rallies throughout Turkey. And the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, declared that this would make its way to the European Court of Human Rights and he challenged the results of the referendum. According to him, 1.5 million ballots were accepted by the Central Elections Commission, despite their not having the proper markings.

Erdogan had high regard for the results, saying, “For the first time in the history of our republic, we are changing our form of government via an expression of the will of the citizenry”. His opinion is shared by the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, who in a congratulatory message to his Turkish colleague, stated that “With this referendum, a new era is beginning in our brother country, the position and role of a stable, strong Turkey are being strengthened in the international arena”.

However, Azerbaijani politicians aligned with the opposition belief that the referendum in Turkey will also have an influence on political processes in Azerbaijan, and that its results should be viewed as part of a tendency towards strengthening of authoritarianism in the region, which may push the Azerbaijani government to strengthen autocracy and repression of human rights. Nevertheless, the President of the USA, Donald Trump, congratulated Erdogan on his victory in the referendum, and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, stated that negotiations regarding Turkey’s membership are ongoing.

But the dark cloud in this sunny sky was the Turkish president’s statement that after the referendum he plans to reevaluate relations with the European Union; the tone of his statement leaves no doubt that this reevaluation will not be a simple one.

“They no longer have anything to threaten us with: not membership to the EU, not the readmission agreement. That’s it, this period is over. On April 16 we will transition to a presidential system, and a completely new Turkey will be born. For years the EU has admonished us with its criteria, and now they themselves are trampling on them”.

Naturally, this did not go unnoticed by the European Union.

The first to react was the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE): the oldest organ of inter-parliamentary cooperation in Europe, and one of the two, primary statutory bodies of the European Union, which consists of representatives from the parliaments of all member states. PACE’s powers include the ability to make decisions regarding the candidacy of new member states, and to monitor their fulfillment of the obligations they have taken on themselves.

In the case that these are violated, PACE has the right to freeze the powers of that nation’s national parliamentary delegation and petition the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to exclude this country from membership in the organization.

On April 25, PACE voted to renew monitoring in Turkey of the fulfillment of its obligations to the Council of Europe. The primary reason provided was that, since the attempted coup, events in Turkey have not met European Union standards: there are problems with the maintenance of human rights, democratic principles, and supremacy of law. 113 parliamentarians voted for the resolution, 45 against, and 12 abstained. It’s not clear whether it will be possible to begin monitoring in the near future, since things are, unfortunately, not going so smoothly in PACE itself.

A scandal erupted over the March 20 mission to Syria, headed by PACE chairperson Pedro Agramunt. This visit was organized by deputies of the Russian State Duma, despite the fact that the Russian Federation has been deprived of its right to a vote in PACE in connection with sanctions and military actions in Ukraine, the delegates of which demanded a clarification of the status of this visit. And that’s not all. Pedro Agramunt was a co-rapporteur of the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe on Azerbaijan, which, according to information from the European Stability Initiative, engaged in ‘caviar diplomacy’, including gifts, free trips, and money for PACE lobbyists. And human rights activists admonish that the PACE Monitoring Committee co-rapporteurs, Pedro Agramunt and Josef Gresh closed their eyes to human rights violations and are implicated in the growth of the number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

However, one way or another, the results of the referendum in Turkey must be implemented, and for this, there must be changes not only to the constitution, but also to a significant amount of the laws regulating the spheres of governmental administration, economics, and foreign policy.

It should be remembered that Turkey is trying to shape an expansive zone of economic and political influence around itself, trying to eliminate problems on its borders and in neighboring regions. The Caucasus is one of the most important areas of its foreign policy, which Turkey is striving to build on principles of “soft power” and interdependence. And of the three republics of the South Caucasus, only Turkish-Azerbaijani relations are characterized by the words “One nation, two states”. It’s logical to suppose that the reforms in Turkey will affect Azerbaijan as well, and that Azerbaijan will perhaps be forced in some degree to rethink its foreign policy strategy.

In setting its foreign policy directions, Baku views the restoration of territorial integrity as a question of state capacity. And in this respect it has Turkey’s full support.

However, autumn of 2009 was a serious test of the two states friendship, when the Turkish government tended towards the necessity of restoring diplomatic relations and an open segment of the land border with Armenia. Azerbaijan views Armenian-Turkish conciliation and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as mutually related problems. This is openly stated by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “The normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey previous to the resolution of the Karabakh conflict conflicts with the national interests of Azerbaijan and throws a shadow on the brotherly relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan”. Baku is concerned by the possibility of a more hardline position from Yerevan at negotiations over Karabakh.

Fuel was added to the fire by the October 14, 2009 qualifying match for the World Cup finals in football, which took place in Bursa between the Armenian and Turkish national teams and was attended by Serzh Sargsyan. Fans with Azerbaijani flags were not permitted to enter the game. In response, in Baku, Turkish flags were taken down at the building of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations and at the memorial to Turkish soldiers who died in September, 1918 in the battles for Baku, and they say in the internet that things even went so far as the burning of the Turkish state symbols.

Ankara managed to resolve the situation, putting a halt to the process of normalizing relations with Armenia. But in response Turkey expressed its hope that Baku would remain in the Turkish orbit, and its disinterest in Azerbaijan participating in any sort of integrational processes with other countries. Perhaps it’s because of this that Azerbaijan did not become involved in Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian integration. One way or another, the results of the Turkish president’s visit to Azerbaijan in 2014 demonstrated that there was no disagreement between the two countries on any sort of issues.

This especially concerns major, international projects like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad – a transport corridor uniting the railroads of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey and aimed at uniting Europe with the Asian railroad network – or the 3,300 km Nabucco gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to the countries of the EU via Turkey.

Nabucco’s rated capacity is 26-32 billion m3 of gas per year, and it is projected to cost €7.9 billion. And the construction of an oil-refining plant in Izmir is one of the largest economic projects undertaken between Azerbaijan and Turkey. The amount of capital investment in this project, where the controlling stake is held by a subsidiary of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR Turkey Enerji) and the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan, is estimated to be $5.7 billion. According to estimates from Turkish analysts, Azerbaijani investment in the Turkish energy sector will reach around $15 billion by 2018, at the same time as investment by Turkish companies doesn’t exceed $3 billion. And indeed, Turkey has the leading position in terms of investment in the Azerbaijani oil sector, with 25.5% of shares, which equals around $1.9 billion. Turkey is implementing an intensive investment policy in Azerbaijan, putting money into the construction of factories and acquiring the oil shelf of the Caspian Sea. In this way, Azerbaijan’s economic good fortunes are directly dependent on the stability of fossil fuel supplies to the West via Georgia and Turkey. This is especially the case if we take into account Donald Trump’s decision to completely cut off financing to Azerbaijan via USAID, in connection with which the republic’s budget will not reach $7.7 million per year, predominantly directed to the oil sector and integrating the Azerbaijani economy with regional markets.

In a certain sense, by retaining good relations with Baku, Turkey wound up being dependent on the interests of Azerbaijan. Perhaps it would like to gradually move the question of Nagorno-Karabakh into the background and normalize relations with Armenia, with whom, despite all problems, it does trade amounting to around $100 million per year. But in implementing policies that run counter to the interests of Azerbaijan, Turkey risks losing its bridge to the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia, which is necessary for expanding its influence and implementing projects for the transport of Kazakh and Turkmen energy resources to Europe.

Most likely many countries will not remain apathetic to the reforms to the system of administration that must be expected in Turkey as a result of the referendum. And this presents Azerbaijan with the necessity of rethinking its position, so as not to be pulled into potential confrontations. Today Azerbaijan is striving to set up a policy of ‘balanced equidistance’. The future will show whether or not this can work out. Perhaps these questions will be raised at the meetings between the delegations of both countries, which are scheduled for the summer of 2017, as stated by Turkey’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Erkan Özoral.

Ana səhifəNewsTurkey’s Referendum and Turkish-Azerbaijani Relations