17.10.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Erdoğan is sick again, and Turkey-EU relations remain unchanged

Turkey-EU relations

A day before the start of the third summit of the European Political Community in the Spanish city of Granada, where a set of issues related to digital technologies, environment, energy, migration and geostrategy (including the Ukrainian and Karabakh crises) is scheduled to be discussed, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev canceled his visit. The Azerbaijani leader explained his decision, saying that he was not going to discuss the situation in Karabakh and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations with the leaders of France, Germany and the EU without the participation of the President of Turkey, who was purposely not invited by the Europeans to the summit on Transcaucasian issues through the efforts of President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Many media outlets have echoed this decision by the Azerbaijani president, with some enthusiastically approving of Aliyev and others surprised. It is clear that Azerbaijan is Turkey’s closest ally, and Ankara’s key role in Baku’s military and transit-energy successes is undeniable. As for Karabakh itself, Azerbaijan’s military operation on September 19-20 this year, after 10 months of total blockade of this unrecognized republic, ended with Baku’s complete triumph and the final capitulation of the Armenian side at this stage.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan not only refused to intervene in the situation and take measures to defend the Armenian remnant of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also actually recognized the capitulation of the leader of the unrecognized republic (the fact of the NKR’s self-dissolution and disarmament). However, why would Aliyev need the confirmation of the NKR’s self-dissolution if he had not before recognized the self-proclamation of this quasi-entity? Armenia accepted the Karabakh Armenians (more than 100 thousand people), who left Nagorno-Karabakh en masse after the defeat and capitulation. Pashinyan expressed regret that he would not be able to meet with Aliyev in Granada to sign a landmark (conceptual) document between Armenia and Azerbaijan (obviously, it is a peace treaty recognizing each other’s territorial integrity along the administrative borders of the former USSR and in accordance with the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration).

What kept Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev from traveling to Spain and putting an important point in the three-decade-long Karabakh drama, which has entailed massive physical and moral losses combined with material destruction for the two peoples and countries? Naturally, the reason for Aliyev’s refusal to participate in the five-state summit (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Germany, France, and the EU) was not concern for the fate of the peace treaty on Karabakh, because Baku is already triumphant and a relevant agreement may be signed in the near future in other capitals. Moreover, Armenia, under the leadership of Pashinyan, has officially declared in words the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, and now it has expressed its readiness to sign the corresponding document.

Obviously, the problematic reason for Aliyev is not Pashinyan at all, but Europe represented by the unexpectedly formed Paris-Berlin alliance. Baku may be concerned about the plans of a French and German interference in the affairs of the Transcaucasian region with threats of possible sanctions against Azerbaijan itself and conditions of guaranteeing some additional rights and freedoms to the Karabakh Armenians, who now number fewer than a hundred people still in Karabakh, in addition to the constitutional norms of the republic.

On the other hand, if the head of Azerbaijan is against the interference of extra-regional forces and centers (in particular, the EU countries) in the affairs of the South Caucasus and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations in particular, then why did Aliyev accept the earlier European platform of negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh in the same Brussels and Prague with the participation of the same Charles Michel and Emmanuel Macron? Finally, Azerbaijan supplies its main export commodity – oil and gas – to Europe, and after the anti-Russian sanctions, Azerbaijan signed a new agreement with the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen to increase gas supplies. Further, in terms of the planned opening of the Zangezur corridor, Baku expects to become a guide and an important component of the Middle Corridor within the framework of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative to supply goods to Europe.

The ambiguity of Mr. Aliyev’s decision on the summit in Granada does not end with these above facts. A further matter is that the Turkish Burs agency simultaneously disseminated a statement that the Turkish President postponed his visit to Spain for the European summit due to illness. Erdoğan once again caught a bad cold and had to cancel not only his foreign visit to Granada, but also a number of other events requiring his participation within Turkey itself (for example, a speech at the forum of the ruling Justice Party led by him). In this situation, how can one understand President Aliyev if his Turkish colleague is ill?

A president is also a human being and has the right to be ill. However, in the past five months this is the second case when Erdoğan unexpectedly caught a cold. As you know, on April 27 this year, before the elections, the Turkish president had to interrupt a live broadcast and his television interview because of a stomach illness. For a couple of days, the head of state canceled events with his participation for objective reasons. In early October this year, the undesirable situation with Erdoğan was repeated. The author will not delve into this issue, much less build any inadequate speculation. However, this message is enough to understand the reason for Mr. Erdoğan’s official refusal to participate in the European summit.

Meanwhile, on October 1 this year, on the day of the beginning of the session of the Turkish Parliament, a terrorist attack took place in Istanbul not far from the building of the Supreme National Security Council and near the Public Security Department of the Interior Ministry, for which the Al-Khalidin Battalion of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a group banned in Turkey – claimed responsibility. The result of this action was one dead terrorist and several wounded policemen. Ankara saw this crime as a challenge from the PKK and its Western backers. On October 2 this year, the Turkish Air Force retaliated with military strikes on 20 PKK targets in Northern Iraq in the areas of Gara, Kandil, Matina and Harkok.

Turkey does not rule out the possibility that more powerful forces in the West are behind such a challenge from the PKK, and some Turkish politicians (e.g., Homeland Party leader Doğu Perinçek) do not rule out the complicity of US intelligence agencies. In Perinçek’s opinion, the US is trying to:

– put pressure on the Turkish parliament’s decision for Sweden’s NATO membership

– express its dissatisfaction with the military actions of Turkish forces against pro-American Kurdish formations in northern Syria

– threaten to transfer terrorism and militant activity of Kurdish security forces (including the PKK, which is banned by Turkish law) to Turkey itself.

After the NATO summit in Vilnius in July, Recep Erdoğan held out some hope (albeit rather shaky) that Stockholm would take a more constructive stance on Turkey’s accession to the EU in exchange for Ankara’s agreement on Sweden’s membership in the North Atlantic alliance. However, Brussels abruptly rejected the issue of accelerating Turkey’s accession to the EU with the Turkish parliament’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership. At the same time, Brussels somehow “forgot” that this “acceleration” took Turkey more than 60 years.

The topic of Turkey’s European integration still hangs in the European bureaucracy, because Brussels, with the key participation of Washington, Paris and Berlin, is not interested in accepting Turkey into the EU. If today in the West in the mentioned capitals, among the reasons of such perception of Turkey the problem of President Erdoğan’s unmanageability is noted, then out of 60 years of Turkish stagnation in the “European queue” the time of Erdoğan’s rule is only 23 years. What were the other 37 years under more obedient and pliant Turkish leaders?

In the situation with the October terrorist attack, some Turkish experts see merit in raising the stakes in Erdoğan’s trade with Sweden in terms of severing any relations between Stockholm and Kurdish organizations, providing substantial financial assistance to Ankara and supporting Turkish interests in the EU. However, it is unlikely that Stockholm will take a more pro-Turkish stance than Washington, Paris and Berlin.

As for the Transcaucasian track, where Turkey has become one of the beneficiaries of Azerbaijan’s victory in the Karabakh conflict (without Erdoğan’s help, Aliyev would hardly have had such a resounding success), Ankara and Baku are closely coordinating their actions on the topic of opening the Zangezur corridor and ensuring a wide international transit of goods from Asia to Europe and back along the Middle Corridor through Turkic countries.

Accordingly, after the Armenian capitulation in Karabakh, Recep Erdoğan is rushing to the expanses of Turan and is trying to dictate his terms in Transcaucasia and Central Asia together with his ally Ilham Aliyev. The Organization of Turkic States (OTS) in Turkey’s plans should become a new alternative (including to the EU) integration mega-project of Ankara in the twenty-first century and ensure closer realization of the slogan “the Golden Age of Turks.”

This is why President Aliyev has not been willing to discuss the fate of the Transcaucasian region and the topic of Armenian-Azerbaijani reconciliation under European control with Macron and Scholz without Erdoğan’s participation since September 20, 2023. And the EU leaders, apart from a small financial injection into the countries of the region, have no significant military levers of pressure on Azerbaijan thus far. The only exception may be the issue of gas supplies from Baku to the EU countries via Turkey, which may significantly affect Europe itself. However, in this regard, one can hardly imagine that Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Italy will refuse Azerbaijani gas in favor of Macron’s and Scholz’s views.

Paris and Berlin have a pretty good idea of such an arrangement. Rather, there remains a certain coordinated intrigue with Washington’s participation and Ankara’s decision on the fate of Sweden in NATO. The US is interested in finding large sources of oil and gas alternative to Russia for supplies to the Western market. In this regard, the secret negotiations between the US and Iran, as well as a 1.5-hour conversation between French President Macron and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi both draw attention.

If the US, France and Germany decide to reduce anti-Iran sanctions and give the green light to export the same Iranian gas to EU countries, the route of laying new energy transit networks through the countries of Transcaucasia to the European market will be actualized again. In this case, the role of Turkey and Azerbaijan may significantly decrease and lead to transformations in the regional balance of power. Therefore, the key regional and extra-regional players will determine whether the Karabakh conflict has come to an end or whether it will become a prologue to a new conflict. Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with the EU remain unchanged…


Aleksandr SVARANTS, Doctor in Political Science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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