ANGRY AT TURKEY, ENERGY-RICH AZERBAIJAN MAY SPURN WEST

By Asbarez Staff
Nov 30th, 2009

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?"

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress