As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responds to the failed coup attempt on July 15, Azerbaijan is embracing the Turkish government’s narrative that the botched putsch was orchestrated by followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Among recent actions taken by Azerbaijan authorities is a clampdown on a Gulen-linked newspaper. Officials have also forced Qafqaz University, considered to be one of the best institutions of higher learning in the country, to sever connections with Gulen’s organization.
While Baku has not yet mimicked Ankara in designating the Gulen organization as a terrorist group, it is obvious that Ilham Aliyev’s administration has adopted wholesale the views espoused by Ankara. It thus is clear that political motives are behind Baku’s decision to restrict Gulen’s influence.
It was very different a quarter century ago. At the beginning of 1990s, Azerbaijan welcomed Gulen-connected institutions to the country. The administration of the late Heydar Aliyev, the father of the current president, saw the movement as a useful tool to promote closer ties between Azerbaijan and Turkey and, given the movement’s strongly nationalist credentials, to forge a Turkic-centric Azerbaijani national identity.
Gulen-linked schools were especially valued in Azerbaijan. Known in the country as “Turkish schools,” they quickly established themselves as among the best in Azerbaijan, with their emphasis on science, foreign languages and hard work. Crucially, the schools were free from corruption that continues to plague Azerbaijan’s education system. Many offspring of the country’s elite attended these schools.
The situation changed after Erdogan, then serving as prime minister, fell out with Gulen. A catalyst for the feud was a massive corruption scandal, allegedly involving Erdogan’s family, which erupted in Turkey in late 2013. As the Erdogan government began cracking down on Gulen-related institutions in Turkey, it pressed other countries with a substantial Gulenist presence to do the same. Ilham Aliyev’s administration was obliging and transferred the management of all Gulen-linked schools to SOCAR, the state oil company. In addition, some officials in Baku, suspected of having links to the movement, were sacked.
Now, in the wake of the failed coup in Turkey, the last vestiges of Gulen’s presence in Azerbaijan are being cleansed.
For Aliyev, the latest phase of the crackdown is a relatively cost-free way of re-asserting his loyalty to Erdogan. Bilateral relations had been unsettled in recent months, as Erdogan was vexed that Baku adopted a neutral position during the Russian-Turkish spat over the downing of a Russian military jet last November. Given the long-standing slogan that characterized bilateral relations – “two states, one nation” – Azerbaijan’s neutrality was seen as a snub by Ankara.
Erdogan was also displeased with Baku’s lack of enthusiasm for the Ankara-backed Trans-Caspian transport corridor project. Azerbaijan was hesitant due to its poor relations with Turkmenistan, along with a desire by Aliyev to maintain balance in the country’s energy dealings with Russia and Iran. Moscow and Tehran both objected vehemently to the Trans-Caspian project.
These days, Aliyev needs strong economic and security relations with Turkey. Baku’s economy has been hit hard by the drop in global energy prices, and, given the recent fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, Azerbaijani authorities look to Ankara for help in bolstering its military capacity. It is noteworthy that the news of crackdown on Gulen-linked institutions in Azerbaijan coincided with the announcement of the establishment of a Turkish military base in Qizil Sherg in Azerbaijan.
There are also broader geopolitical implications driving the crackdown on Gulenists in Azerbaijan.
At the core of the Gulenist ideology lies a mix of Sunni conservatism and neo-Ottoman Turkish nationalism, which strives for a “great restoration” of Turkish leadership over the vast swathes of Eurasia – South Caucasus and Central Asia, all the way up to China’s western borders – essentially, everywhere where Turkic peoples are found.
This vision clashes with the ideas and policies held by Azerbaijan’s other powerful neighbors – Russia and Iran. Russia has closed all Gulen schools on its territory, except in the Turkic-speaking republic of Tatarstan, out of a concern that the movement is spreading pan-Turkism and Islamism.
When it comes to Iran, Gulen and his followers have repeatedly expressed stridently anti-Iranian views, at times bordering on anti-Shia sectarianism. Gulen has disparaged Iranian Shias as “hypocrites” who use taqiyya, the often misunderstood Shia concept of dissimulation, or hiding one’s true beliefs or intentions, to “engage in a sinister campaign against Muslims.” Unsurprisingly, Iran has not allowed Gulenist schools to be established on its territory.
The Aliyev administration has, of late, cultivated better relations with both Moscow and Tehran. On August 8, a trilateral summit between Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran was held in Baku, at which the sides discussed regional security, including the situation in Syria, as well as ambitious economic projects, such as a north-south railway.
Thus, by eliminating Gulen-related institutions, the Aliyev administration can score diplomatic points not only with Turkey, but also Russia and Iran.
There is a downside to the expulsion of the Gulen movement from Azerbaijan. Its schools, with their records of academic excellence, particularly in math and foreign languages, were a ticket for many talented Azerbaijani youngsters to gain admission to prestigious international universities. It remains to be seen whether the new management at these schools will maintain the same standards. The movement, despite its social conservatism, promoted a moderate version of Islam, with an emphasis on the prevention of radicalization. Azerbaijan of late has experienced a rise in the influence of radical Salafi preachers. And there are some Shia currents in the country that would like to see the current secular system replaced by an Iranian-style theocracy.
The decision to clamp down on the Gulen movement may bring Azerbaijani government immediate political benefits. Whether, on balance, the loss of Gulenist influence will help or hurt Azerbaijani society over the longer term remains to be seen.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity.
Eldar Mamedov is a Brussels-based foreign policy expert