Azerbaijan Warns Turkey Against Normalizing Ties With Armenia

BAKU (Combined Sources)–Turkey will act against the national interests of Azerbaijan if it normalizes relations with Armenia before a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said on Thursday.

“If the [Turkish-Armenian] border is opened before Armenian troops’ withdrawal from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, that will run counter to Azerbaijan’s national interests,” Mammadyarov told journalists during a visit to Georgia.

“We have brought this opinion to the notice of the Turkish leadership,” he said in remarks broadcast by the Azerbaijani ANS television and monitored by BBC. “To tell the truth, the Turkish leadership accepts that and says that the [Karabakh peace] talks should continue and that Armenia’s troops should withdraw from the occupied territories. Only on this condition can the border be opened.”

Baku announced on Thursday that it could cut off natural gas supplies to Turkey if Ankara opens its borders with Armenia before Yerevan and reach an agreement of their own, the Turkish Hurriyet Daily reported Thursday.

Natural gas shipmen’s are vital for Azerbaijan, which has diversified its energy transportation away from its Soviet-era routes through Russia and now transports approximately 7 billion cubic meters of gas annually across Georgia to Turkey and then on to Europe. This route has played a large part in Azerbaijan’s breaking away from its former master, Russia, and developing the ability to reap great profits from tapping the Turkish and European markets.

But from Baku’s perspective, the threat of cutting off natural gas is one of the only tools it has to use against Turkey, even if it would hit Baku’s coffers, according to Stratfor, a private intelligence firm based in Texas. Azerbaijan is gambling on the possibility that Europe could pressure Turkey in turn, since the natural gas also goes to Europe. It is not a particularly strong threat, Stratfer said, noting, however, that it is one of the only moves Baku can make in hopes that its longtime ally will not abandon it and ignore Azerbaijan’s deman’s in striking a deal with Armenia.

The warning followed Turkish and Western media reports that Armenia and Turkey are poised to announce an agreement that commits them to gradually establishing full diplomatic relations and reopening their border. Ankara shut down the frontier in 1993, at the height of the war in Karabakh, out of solidarity with Turkic Azerbaijan. A Karabakh settlement acceptable to Baku has been a key Turkish precondition for normalizing relations with Armenia.

The two neighboring nations embarked on a dramatic rapprochement last summer amid indications that Ankara is ready to stop linking Turkish-Armenian ties to Karabakh. The apparent policy change has prompted serious concern from Azerbaijani politicians and pundits. They believe that an open border with Turkey would ease Armenia’s regional isolation and encourage it to maintain the Karabakh status quo.

“Hurriyet Daily News” claimed on Thursday that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has threatened to halt gas supplies to Turkey if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government cuts a ground-breaking deal with the Armenia’s. The paper claimed that Aliev made the threat at a meeting with unspecified “third parties” in Baku. It gave no further details.

Aliyev was expected to discuss the matter with the visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza. “Mr. Bryza travels to Azerbaijan Thursday to discuss how a Turkish-Armenian agreement could help revive efforts for a settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh,” reported “The Wall Street Journal.” The paper cited an unnamed senior Turkish official as saying that Washington is trying to facilitate such an agreement.

According to “The Wall Street Journal” and the Turkish press, Ankara and Yerevan are close to signing a “roadmap” to normalizing bilateral times and setting up inter-governmental commissions dealing with various issues of mutual interest. One of these commissions would reportedly study the 1915 Genocide.

The idea of such a study was floated by Erdogan in 2005 and rejected by then Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who considered it a Turkish ploy designed to scuttle worldwide recognition of the massacres as genocide. Kocharian’s successor, Serzh Sarkisian, has indicated that he does not object to the Turkish proposal in principle.

Press reports have said that the Turkish-Armenian deal could be unveiled during or shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama’s April 6-7 visit to Turkey. Turkish leaders hope that will discourage Obama from honoring his election campaign pledge to recognize the Armenian genocide. They have warned that such a declaration would set back the Turkish-Armenian dialogue.

Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian dismissed the Turkish warnings during an early March visit to Paris. Diplomatic sources say Nalbandian may again meet his Turkish counterpart, Ali Babacan, early next week on the sidelines of a UN-sponsored international conference in Istanbul. For his part, Babacan is expected to visit Yerevan on April 16 to attend a high-level meeting of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization.

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