31 yanvar 2015.
On Dec. 1, 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Ankara, where he met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss primarily the trade-and-economic and energy matters. In the joint press-conference, Putin announced that Russia would not continue building the South Stream, the $45 billion pipeline that aimed at bringing Russian gas to the EU bypassing Ukraine, due to the EU’s Third Energy Package and competition requirements. Putin also made a surprising announcement that Russia would extend the existing Blue Stream gas pipeline to Turkey and build a new energy hub on the Turkish-Greek border. The new pipeline will be able to deliver 63 billion cubic meters of gas annually, 14 bcm of which will be delivered to Turkey at 6 percent discounted prices.
While details have not been clarified, Gazprom and BOTAŞ, Russian and Turkish state energy companies, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the construction of the offshore gas pipeline across the Black Sea toward Turkey.
Putin’s surprising decision raised important questions about the implications of this rapprochement of Russia and Turkey for neighboring Azerbaijan and its relations with the EU vis-a-vis the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Can it prevent Azerbaijan from signing the Association Agreement? May Turkey join the EEU? Would it mean that Azerbaijan might have no choice but to access to the EEU, which unlike the EU does not bother with human rights and democracy, following the Turkish example?
A careful examination of Turkish-Russian relations says it is unlikely to happen.
First of all, Ankara and Moscow still have fundamental differences on such important issues like Syria. This division was apparent even in the joint press conference in Ankara, where Putin said “are we insisting on [Bashar] al-Assad to be in power? I would like to convey that question to the Syrian people. An election was held and we saw that al-Assad has major support.”
Erdoğan responded by stating “the ones who stage coups always prevail with major votes. We saw this kind of a situation in Turkey as well, when the pro-coup mindset won the elections with 80-90 percent of total votes. They conduct the elections with the ‘open voting and secret counting’ method. That way, they could announce the results in any way they like.”
Furthermore, with new aspirations to become the sultan of modern Turkey, Erdoğan is very keen to protect the rights of Crimean Tatars. Although, Putin mentioned extending broader rights to Crimean Tatars, it is most likely not to be translated into action, which could cause friction between Turkey and Russia. The Kremlin is also known for backing Greek Cypriots, where most of Russia’s capital has been moved in the last 15 years.
Despite the deteriorated relations with the White House and diplomatic scandal with Israel, Turkey remains a major partner of the West in the Middle East. Therefore, there is no evidence that Ankara may enter the Russia-backed EEU, which offers a much smaller market for trade than the EU.
Even if Turkey joins the EEU, Azerbaijan will not be trapped out of the EU and obliged to opt for the Moscow-backed integration project. Economically, a new pipeline would not undermine the importance or economic viability of the TANAP, the gas pipeline that will deliver Azerbaijani gas to Europe via Turkey.
Although, such move by Turkey, Azerbaijan’s brother country, would provide justification for the Azerbaijani government to join the EEU, it is not in the economic interest of the ruling elite. The Azerbaijani economy is dominated by monopolies and mostly owned by the ruling elite. Therefore, the main decision makers are not interested in the liberalization of the economy to foreign trade through any multilateral body. This has been the reason behind more than 15 years of unsuccessful negotiations between Azerbaijan and the WTO. Furthermore, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev explicitly stated in Davos that Azerbaijan is not obliged to choose between the two and will follow its own path.
In addition, the sovereignty and independence have been put a special emphasis in speeches and policies of the government and Aliyev repeatedly and explicitly stated that sovereignty is the priority for his government. The latest events in Ukraine showed that joining the EEU would certainly diminish the sovereignty of Azerbaijan and would give Russia tools for interference.
Razi Nurullayev, political scientist, is a deputy-chairperson for foreign affairs of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and chairperson at the ‘REGION’ International Analytical Center (RIAC).