The tangled three-way relationship involving Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey is taking on the characteristics of a Gordian Knot. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku on May 13 in an attempt to cut that knot. But the Turkish leader may have ended up only tightening it, thus muddying efforts to promote the normalization of trilateral ties.
The official agenda for the Erdogan-Aliyev talks adhered to the broad and general: Turkey-Azerbaijan relations, Azerbaijan-Armenia relations, Turkey-Armenia relations and "stability and cooperation" in the South Caucasus. Erdogan flew to Baku facing a deep diplomatic dilemma: Turkey has close cultural ties with Azerbaijan and the two countries are traditional allies, but Ankara's recent move to mend its historically hostile relations with Armenia threatened to seriously damage the Turkish-Azerbaijani special relationship. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. It likewise appeared difficult, if not impossible, for Erdogan to please either Armenia or Azerbaijan without harming relations with the other, due to lingering differences on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ultimately, Erdogan seemed unwilling to risk further damage to the special relationship with Baku, and in so he generated questions about how the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement can proceed. At a news conference, Erdogan bowed to Baku's wishes, asserting that Turkey would not open its border with Armenia until Armenia withdrew its troops from "Azerbaijani territories" - a term that could refer to Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories, or to the surrounding territories alone. Erdogan did not elaborate.
"The reason for Turkey and Armenia's closed borders is Karabakh and the occupation of Azerbaijani territories. Until this reason is removed, the consequences will not be eliminated," Erdogan said. "For Turkey, the settlement of the Karabakh conflict is as important as for Azerbaijan, and there is no place for speculations on behalf of Turkey."
Erdogan's unequivocal expression of support for Azerbaijan's position on Karabakh marks a resounding diplomatic victory for Baku, and underscores the power of energy issues to influence geopolitical choices.
Azerbaijan's chief lever of influence during the recent flurry of diplomatic activity, both concerning the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and on Karabakh, has been natural gas exports. Baku and Ankara had been haggling over the gas price for Azerbaijani exports that are projected to fill the planned Nabucco pipeline. Turning up the heat on Turkey, Baku started dropping hints in recent weeks that it might ditch the European Union-backed pipeline in favor of an expansion of energy exports via Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]
President Aliyev hinted broadly at an April 30 press conference in Brussels that a realignment of Baku's foreign policy could be in the works if Turkey and Armenia continued down the road toward rapprochement without keeping Azerbaijan's concerns about the Karabakh peace process in mind.
At the May 13 press conference, however, Aliyev backed away from talk about playing the Russia card. "We have good relations with Russia, so it is not necessary to take any additional steps," news agencies reported him as saying.
Even so, the differences over the price Turkey pays for Azerbaijani gas linger on.
Aliyev has made plain his displeasure with the current price for Azerbaijani gas exports to Turkey. The two countries' previous deal -- $120 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas -- expired in April 2008, he stated last month. The price Turkey paid for gas from Russia and Algeria in 2008 was nearly three times what was paid to Azerbaijan, he asserted.
Following the May 13 talks, President Aliyev stated that a new price for Azerbaijani gas had not been agreed with Erdogan. Price discussions are ongoing, Azerbaijani news services reported.
Ilham Shaban, head of Baku's Center for Oil Research, believes that Azerbaijan's calculations are influenced by its irritation with the budding reconciliation between Azerbaijani foe Armenia and friend Turkey. "It is not related to business. If it is not so, why was this [price] issue not raised in 2008, when the world price for gas was $450-$500?" Shaban commented.
The squabble is also connected to Azerbaijan's own regional energy ambitions, he continued. "The Turkish scheme is not different from what Russia used for many years with Central Asia's countries - buy and then re-export to Europe ... But Azerbaijan has a more ambitious attitude and wants to get the European market and participate in gas distribution," Shaban said.
Shaban expects that a company with a "dominating role" played by the Azerbaijani government could eventually replace Norway's Statoil as the Shah Deniz project's commercial operator and take over price negotiations.
Turkey had earlier insisted on paying lower prices on 15 percent of all gas that passes through Turkish territory for the Nabucco pipeline - a proposal strongly opposed by the European Union. On May 11, however, The Guardian newspaper reported European officials as saying that Turkey had dropped its 15-percent condition, paving the way for a pipeline deal to be signed by June 25.
Now that Turkey has backed Azerbaijan on Karabakh, some political analysts in Baku expect that Ankara will demand that Azerbaijan make concessions in the gas pricing dispute.
"Turkey has tried to convince Azerbaijan that the [Armenian] border's 16-year closure benefited neither Turkey -- which lost a lot of money and created tension with the West -- nor Azerbaijan," said political analyst Ilgar Mammadov. "If Azerbaijan will not recognize the Turkish position [on the border-opening issue], [then Ankara] will insist on its own price." [Editor's Note: Mammadov is a board member of the Open Society Foundation-Azerbaijan, which is affiliated with the Open Society Institute in New York. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute].
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku. Shahin Abbasov, a freelance reporter also based in Baku, contributed reporting to this story.