On June 15, 2021, during his visit to occupied Shushi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed the Shushi Declaration with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev to cement “allied relations” between the two countries. The declaration consists of many important points including mutual defense guarantees and is seen as a new bilateral roadmap entailing political and economic cooperation (including in energy, media, diaspora, trade and other spheres) but particularly regarding defense and mutual military aid. Thus, what are the implications of the agreement for the South Caucasus and beyond?
Content of the Declaration
The document is composed of many important points ranging from political-media coordination to trade, energy security and military cooperation. I will try to summarize the key points:
– According to the agreement, both Azerbaijan and Turkey affirm the adherence to all international documents signed between the “two fraternal and friendly countries,” as well as to the Treaty of Kars of October 13, 1921. The document assesses the statement of the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, “The joy of Azerbaijan is our joy, its sorrow is our sorrow” and the slogan of former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, “One nation, two states” as “the national and spiritual value of the two peoples.”
– The parties note that the opening of the “Zangezur corridor” (note that the term “corridor” is not highlighted in the November 9, 2020 trilateral statement signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia), which will connect Azerbaijan and Turkey through the western regions of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and the construction of the Nakhchivan-Kars railway will contribute to the intensification of transport and communication ties between the two countries. According to the Turkish Daily Sabah newspaper, Azerbaijan’s projects in Syunik include highways and rail lines. Following the completion of the railway, Azerbaijan will be able to reach Iran, Armenia and Nakhchivan “uninterruptedly” by train.
– Regarding military cooperation, the parties will promote the exchange of personnel of the armed forces, conduct joint exercises and regular joint meetings on national security issues, increase the combat effectiveness of the armies of the two countries (including the modernization of the Azerbaijani armed forces), cooperate closely in the management of weapons using modern technologies, and ensure for this purpose the coordination of authorized structures and organizations. Azerbaijan and Turkey will support joint military exercises with the armies of other friendly countries (assuming Pakistan).
– Both sides recognize the territorial integrity, inviolability of borders, stability and security of each other. They also condemn all forms and manifestations of terrorism. Azerbaijan resolutely supports the fight the Republic of Turkey is waging against terrorism (mainly directed to PKK activities and the Artsakh Defense Army, which Baku considers “separatists and terrorists”).
– The agreement also includes a mutual defense pact. This issue is explained in the declaration as follows: “In the event that the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security, or the immunity of internationally-recognized borders of either one of the sides is threatened or attacked according to it by a third state or group of states, the two sides will have joint meetings and take initiatives that are in line with the United Nations Charter in order to prevent this threat or attack, and they will provide each other with the necessary aid in line with the UN Charter. The scope and form of this aid will be determined at promptly summoned meetings, decisions will be made to meet defense needs so that joint measures can be duly taken, and the sides will ensure that the operational and administrative units of the Armed Forces will work in a coordinated manner.”
– Despite the fact that the agreement includes a mutual defense pact in the event of a threat or aggression against either country, both sides declare that the military-political cooperation developing between the two states and meeting their national interests is “not directed against third countries.” This clause may be added to try to “calm” Russian and Iranian concerns.
– Some clauses are directly related to the Armenian Genocide and genocide recognition efforts taken by the Armenian Diaspora organizations. One of the points argues that Armenia has “unfounded claims against Turkey, attempts to distort history and politicize historical facts through their distortion,” which “harms peace and stability in the region.” Thus both sides strongly support the efforts of Turkey in this context, which has “opened its archives in connection with the events of 1915 in order to encourage the opening of archives in Armenia and other countries and enable a research to be conducted on this topic by historians.” With the purpose of combating the Armenian Diaspora, another clause adds that both countries will consolidate their efforts to further develop cooperation between Azerbaijani and Turkish diasporas living in different countries in order to “take joint action against common problems they face and show consistent solidarity.” It is worth mentioning that Azerbaijani and Turkish diaspora groups have already cooperated with each other to oppose the Genocide commemoration events. In the past few years, Turkish and Azerbaijani groups intensified their lobbying activities in Europe and the US by co-organizing events related to Khojali and Karabakh.
– Both sides also reaffirm their commitment to media coordination. In accordance with the “Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Turkey in the Field of Media” signed on December 10, 2020, the parties, taking into account the capabilities of the Azerbaijani-Turkish media platform, will further strengthen cooperation between relevant agencies of the two countries in the field of information, communication and public diplomacy. Within this framework, active consultations and exchanges of information will be regularly held between the ministers of foreign affairs in order to coordinate activities on regional and international strategic issues of common interest.
– Finally, the agreement calls to “strengthen stability and security” in the Caucasus region, restore all economic and transport links, normalize relations between the states of the region and ensure long-term peace.
Commenting on this declaration, Tural Ganjaliyev, the so-called representative of the Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh, said that by citing the Kars Treaty of 1921, both countries are reaffirming their territorial integrity and recognizing each other’s borders. Referring to the so-called “Zangezur corridor,” Ganjaliyev elaborated that Turkey will be able to access Central Asia by passing through the Caspian Sea. He concludes that Russia will similarly benefit economically from the “corridor” and that Armenia must give up its “revisionist thoughts” and sign a peace treaty as it will be a “great opportunity for the region.” Thus, we can conclude that this agreement has clear geopolitical ambitions, and we will examine how other analysts reflected on the content of the document.
Reflections from Different Analysts
Most analysts, especially those based in Ankara and Baku, agree that this was a major strategic victory for both Azerbaijan and Turkey which positions Turkey as the main guarantor of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including the restoration of Azerbaijani sovereignty on the territories of Artsakh currently under the Russian control and administered by the Armenians. Moreover, we understand that Turkey will ensure the opening of the so-called “Zangezur corridor” through Armenia, as both countries are determined to force Yerevan to provide transport corridors even by military means. The joint statement also affirmed the continuity of the Kars Treaty signed in 1921, which was painful to the Armenian side as it lost Kars, Ardahan and other provinces to Kemalist Turkey.
Linking the Shushi Declaration to the Treaty of Kars signed in 1921 is interesting. According to Fuad Shahbazov, a Baku-based regional analyst, the Treaty of Kars clarified the status of (Soviet) Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave. In an article in Jamestown Foundation he argues that the explicit reference to the century-old treaty should not come as a surprise since, as a result of that document, the newly declared Republic of Turkey assumed responsibility as the guarantor of Nakhchivan. A century later, Azerbaijan signed another document with Turkey that effectively assigns the latter as the guarantor of Azerbaijani sovereignty over Shushi and demonstrates the importance Ankara attaches to this region, a city of “even greater strategic importance for Baku.” According to Shahbazov, the new document paves the way for deeper alignment between Azerbaijan and Turkey, the latter a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
For Yerevan-based Russian analyst Anton Evstratov, the content of the Shushi declaration was not surprising since Azerbaijan and Turkey have long had a formal alliance. Turkish officers were in Azerbaijan training and instructing Azerbaijani special forces during the 2020 Artsakh War.
According to Dr. Cavid Veliyev, head of the department Center of Analysis of International Relations (Baku), such agreements are defensive in nature and impose a responsibility on the allied states to join forces with each other when one of them is attacked by a third state or a coalition. That is, a war against Azerbaijan is a war against Turkey.
Veliyev also highlights the importance of this agreement to the Turkic world. He writes that the agreement mentions the “Middle Corridor,” which connects Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Turkey and is supported by the Turkic Council. For him, the implications of this sentence go beyond energy security and trade and have geopolitical consequences. Azerbaijan and Turkey must emphasize that they deeply value cooperation with the entire Turkic world as the founding countries and locomotives of the Turkic Council. The fact that the Turkic Council is given precedence over several other organizations and international platforms in the region demonstrates the significance of the Council in regards to the regional policies of the two states. “Azerbaijan and Turkey managed to forge a new geopolitical reality after the Second Artsakh War,” he argues. “They wish to carry this geopolitical reality into the future by supporting it with new proposals for cooperation. Since the energy and transportation projects carried out in the past in the region by both of these states have shifted the geopolitical balance in their favor, they have experience in this field,” as reflected on the battlefield.
Azer Gasimli, a political analyst, also believes that this declaration has a geopolitical interpretation. He argues in OC Media that the document reflects the shifts in Azerbaijan’s geopolitical priorities. Before the war, Azerbaijan was trying to balance its foreign policy in the South Caucasus between Russia and the West. Now Baku has to balance between Moscow and Ankara. While Moscow and Ankara’s interests converge, Baku may feel it is on the safe side, but when these interests diverge in the long run, Baku will feel the pressure to make painful compromises to one of the sides at the expense of the other, which may reflect on its domestic politics.
Commenting on the opening of a Turkish Consulate in occupied Shushi and the mutual economic relations mentioned in the declaration, Gasimli said that this step was done without consulting the Russian side. “Turkey openly states that it wants to open a Consulate General in Shushi…If any pressure on Shushi or any status issue related to Nagorno-Karabakh is raised, the city of Shushi will not be the subject of these discussions,” Gasimli added. Thus for him, by opening a consulate and raising the Turkish flag, Turkey claims to be the guarantor of the city. Meanwhile, Aliyev’s declaration in May 2021 that Shushi is the “cultural capital of Azerbaijan” shows the special attention given at the state level to the city. The presidential decree reads as follows: “Shushi’s historical and cultural significance, as well as its exceptional spiritual value for the Azerbaijani people, all make it necessary to treat it with special care and sensitivity. From this point of view, further improvement of public administration and legal regulation in Shushi will not only serve to restore and preserve the historical and cultural heritage in the city but will also create conditions for its continuing development.”
Finally, Richard Giragosian, the founder of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center Think Tank, commented on the same media outlet arguing that the declaration “also represents an important and powerful message, not to Armenia alone, but also to Russia.” In fact, as much as this agreement is directed against weak Armenia, the “true significance lies in the geopolitical demonstration of Azerbaijan-Turkish determination to resist any further expansion of influence and projection of power by Russia in the region,” adds Giragosian.
Implications on South Caucasus and Beyond
As analyzed, the agreement has clear implications for the region and maybe even beyond. Turkey is a rising power, and Russia’s influence in its traditional power base in the South Caucasus is being challenged. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in its latest war with Armenia could have much greater ramifications, with Turkey using Azerbaijan’s geographic position and significant cultural leverage as a springboard to reach out to Central Asia.
According to Fuad Shahbazov, the declaration outlines joint efforts to reorganize and modernize the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. According to him, Azerbaijan seeks to modernize its Armed Forces specifically on the model of the Turkish Army. Recent achievements of the Turkish military-industrial sector, including its famed Bayraktar-TB2 combat drones, have attracted not only Azerbaijan but also Ukraine, Kazakhstan and NATO members Poland, Latvia and the United Kingdom. In addition, since the end of the 2020 Artsakh War, the Azerbaijani Armed Forces (Special Forces, Navy and Air Force) have participated in several important joint military exercises with Turkey. The two sides conducted large-scale winter drills in Kars from February 1-12 and the Anatolian Phoenix 2021 exercises in Konya, Turkey with the participation of the Azerbaijani air and naval forces on May 24. Furthermore, on June 3 the two allies signed a declaration in Baku on “military study and training, as well as on the exchange of military personnel between Turkey and Azerbaijan and the acquisition of modern military technology by the latter.”
Evstratov believes that for the moment this alliance can only be countered by Armenia’s alliance with Russia, even though Russia’s position in the current moment “is by no means hostile to that of Turkey and Azerbaijan.” Such an alliance can push Iran, which is extremely worried about Turkish influence in its north, to engage in proactive diplomacy in the future to contain the Turkish influence. Thus this passive attitude of Russia and Iran may not last very long. Indeed, Turkey’s growing footprint in the South Caucasus will enable it to more actively pursue a route eastward to the vitally important neighboring Central Asia, particularly to the energy-rich country of Turkmenistan. These actions will raise concerns in Moscow and Tehran as both will be isolated from regional economic projects.
Moreover, debates regarding plans for a future Turkish military base in Azerbaijan raised eyebrows and provoked an immediate reaction in Moscow. While Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “dismissed” these “rumors,” the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs later issued a statement saying that “Moscow is closely monitoring developments around the potential Turkish military base in Azerbaijan, a move that could require Russia to take steps to ensure its own security and interests.” Although the declaration does not mention anything about a permanent foreign military facility on Azerbaijani soil (Turkish or otherwise), President Erdogan notably stated that “the issue may become a subject of discussion.”
It is clear that Russia does not yet have a clear strategy towards Turkey. Rebuffing Lavrov’s “calmed” response, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, “The deployment of military infrastructure by the (NATO) alliance countries near our borders is cause for our special attention, as well as a reason for us to take steps to ensure our security and interests.” The South Caucasus, which was part of Tsarist Russia and the former Soviet Union, is of special interest to Russia, which has traditionally regarded it as its own sphere of influence. Thus Russia is closely monitoring the talks between Ankara and Baku on establishing a Turkish military base in Azerbaijan.
The response of the Armenian authorities was soft. While authorities of Artsakh called Erdogan’s visit to occupied Shushi “illegal,” Yerevan defined the visit as “provocative.” It is extremely important to pay attention to the diplomatic words since “provocation” is not a crime. Evstratov believes that this “soft” position can be considered a consequence of a possible secret agreement between Yerevan, Baku and Ankara related to opening a passage for Azerbaijan via Syunik. Here Evstratov argues that by unblocking the trade routes, Armenian authorities may think that their economic dependency on Moscow would decrease and take steps towards the West.
Indeed, former Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Lena Nazaryan stated that Armenia must strive to establish long-term or even permanent peace with all of Armenia’s neighbors. She also said in an interview that there is now a high chance for establishing diplomatic relations with Turkey. It is no secret that Nikol Pashinyan and his team, despite all the post-war geopolitical factors constraining their options to maneuver, are eager to seek rapprochement with the West. Let us remember that Turkey is a NATO member and now the alliance has consolidated its presence in the region. In this context, it is worth mentioning that Erdogan’s visit to occupied Artsakh took place after he participated in the NATO summit and his meeting with US President Joe Biden, which also has at least symbolic significance.
Russia’s concern arises from the fact that for the first time NATO, through Turkey, now has a military presence in the South Caucasus. It is important to remind that when President Erdogan arrived in Baku with the Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın and spokesperson of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Omer Celik, he was also accompanied by the head of the Turkish delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Osman Askın Bak.
Moreover, while addressing the MPs in Azerbaijan’s National Assembly in the capital city, President Erdogan reaffirmed his proposal regarding the 3+3 cooperation format which he announced in January 2021. According to Nur Ozkan Erbay, Erdogan reiterated his proposal for a six-nation platform comprising Turkey, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia for “permanent peace, stability, and cooperation in the region.” Erdogan announced that “Turkey believes that permanent peace is possible through mutual security-based cooperation among states and people in the South Caucasus region.” Armenia and Georgia did not provide a clear answer yet, as Yerevan was worried about increased Turkish influence and the replacement of the mandate of the OSCE Minsk Group in addressing the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, while Tbilisi was anxious about Russian intervention in regional affairs.
The content of the Shushi Declaration is not just a strike for the Armenian interests in Nagorno-Karabakh but also a big blow to Moscow’s hopes to attract Azerbaijan to its side. If Moscow believed that Turkey would soon leave NATO and Azerbaijan would join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia has been mistaken. NATO has officially solidified its military presence in the South Caucasus, while Baku is modernizing its army and integrating into Turkey’s Westernized army. For Armenia, this declaration will make the liberation of other parts of Nagorno-Karabakh from the Azerbaijani-Turkish yoke almost impossible without Russian-Iranian support.
Meanwhile, this is the first step to solidify Turkey’s pan-Turkic aspirations in the Caucasus and beyond. If the Artsakh conflict is resolved in Azerbaijan’s interest, it will no longer need to balance its relationship with Russia, and its road to NATO membership would be open with Turkey’s blessing. Under these circumstances, Armenia must secure the demographic growth of Artsakh Armenians in the Russian-controlled territories of Nagorno-Karabakh, invite the OSCE Minsk Group to take a more active role in the region, strengthen relations with Moscow and Tehran and seek other strategic partners until the balance of power in the South Caucasus changes to Armenia’s favor. However, it is unclear how far PM Nikol Pashinyan, after the victory he scored in this month’s snap parliamentary elections, will go in addressing the status of Artsakh, or whether he will continue his compromised attitude and pave the way for a greater Turkish role in the region.