February 1, 2016 – With Russian-Turkish relations remaining sour after Turkey downed a Russian bomber, Ankara is looking to Azerbaijan and Central Asia for support in helping to ease its dependency on Russian energy.
The first country Turkish Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu visited after the November downing was neighbor Azerbaijan. Turkey depends on Russia for over half its natural gas and reducing that dependency is a priority. Ankara often describes its relationship with energy-rich Azerbaijan as “two nations, one people.” It is an obvious choice, says Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Institute in Brussels.
“Azerbaijan, being one of the most promising countries that can supply, if need be, natural gas, would allow Turkey to decrease its dependence on Russia,” Ulgen said. “But there would be certainly sensitivity in Baku in trying not to be too confrontational with Russia. Russia is a major player and has influence on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
Observers point out tensions have recently heightened between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. Ankara is also looking for support from energy-rich Central Asian states which share ethnic ties with Turkey.
Turkey’s ruling AK party, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has invested political and financial capital in the region. Despite such efforts, political columnist Semih Idiz of Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper says Ankara is struggling to find support.
“I don’t think Turkey has automatic backing of these countries. You see, the Central Asia republics plus Azerbaijan are put in a very delicate situation in this fight between Turkey and Russia, because they are heavily dependent on Russia politically; they are all part of Russia’s defense union that Moscow has, and they have dealings with Russia that they cannot overlook,” said Idiz. “So you will notice, since the Russian jet crisis, these republics have not been extremely vocal.”
In December, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev called on Ankara to apologize to Moscow for the downing of the Russian aircraft by Turkish jets. Atambayev had in the past referred to his Turkish counterpart as my “old brother.” Ibrahim Kalin, the Turkish president ’s spokesman, described the apology call as unfortunate.
Observers say Moscow is giving Ankara a hard lesson in real-politik when it comes to the Caucasus and Central Asia.