Russia is once again focusing on Azerbaijan’s attachment to Turkey and on its “Turkification” of the minority nationalities within its borders, something one advisor to the Kremlin says is a threat to stability in the region and to the interests of Russia and Iran (Ekonomicheskiye Izvestia, December 6). The warnings come amidst Russian concerns about the opening of the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars (BTK) railway, which will allow Chinese and Central Asian goods to reach Europe while bypassing Russia (Turan Today, November 23; Ekonomicheskiye Izvestia, November 1; see EDM, October 16), as well as anger that Azerbaijan has become the first post-Soviet government to reject a Moscow-nominated ambassador to its capital (Ekonomicheskiye Izvestia, December 12; see EDM, December 5).
The construction of the BTK railway has been a long time coming, and Moscow has opposed it from the beginning, viewing it as a threat to Russian influence not only in the Caucasus but in Central Asia and with China as well (see EDM, January 31, 2013; October 16, 2013). Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani-Russian diplomatic spat over the appointment of a new ambassador to Baku is still intensifying. Azerbaijani officials explain that their anger was motivated by not being approached for agreement in advance as well as reservations about Moscow’s candidate who, they say, is pro-Armenian. At the same time, Russian commentators suggest that others, including Turkey and the United States, who have an anti-Russian agenda, are behind the conflict between Baku and Moscow (Narodnyye Novosti, December 12; see EDM), December 5).
Now, there are indications that Russia plans to counter Azerbaijan on both points—the BTK railroad and the dispute over the ambassador. And it may seek to do this by attacking Baku for its connections with Ankara as well as for its Turkification programs with regard to ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan. Moreover, it appears Russia my try to involve the Iranian government in that action, a prospect which significantly raises the stakes for Azerbaijan and its supporters in Turkey and the West. The clearest evidence of this strategy can be found in a new interview given to the Real Tribune portal by Ismail Shabanov, an ethnic Talysh who serves on the Russian Presidential Council on International Relations (Ekonomicheskiye Izvestia, December 6).
In this interview, Shabanov said bluntly that “the Turkification of Azerbaijan” and indeed Azerbaijan’s ties with Turkey and efforts to involve Ankara in the Caucasus are “a very dangerous development for Russia and Iran” and something the two powers must work together to oppose before things there become even more explosive. Indeed, he argued, “The restoration of the rights of the indigenous peoples [of Azerbaijan] corresponds to the strategic interests” of those two countries (Ekonomicheskiye Izvestia, December 6).
According to the Russian presidential advisor, the Azerbaijani authorities not only want Turkey to become a paramount power in the South Caucasus but are promoting Turkish-style repressions against ethnic minorities there, denying these peoples basic rights and even the possibility of asserting their identities. Baku sees in Turkey its basic protector and thus seeks to curry favor by pursuing a policy under the Aliyevs’ (President Ilham Aliyev and his late father and former president, Heydar) doctrine of “one people, two states” with regard to minorities that is even more Turkish than Turkey now is.
The Azerbaijani government “wants to legitimate a Turkish presence in Azerbaijan by declaring that Turkey supposedly has the right to take part in Caucasus affairs,” Shabanov asserted. But “they are deeply mistaken. First, the Trans-Caucasus [a common Russian name for the South Caucasus region] is not only Turkey.” It is at the intersect point of other powers as well, in particular Russia and Iran; and Baku forgets that Tehran, in the 1813 Gulistan Peace Treaty, transferred to Russia the predominant position in the region. “From this it follows,” the advisor continued, “only Russia and Persia have rights in the region.”
“If the Azerbaijanis really want to play with the Turks,” Shabanov added, they have to expect that others will play as well. The Talysh ethnic minority, for example, has the full right to turn to Russia and Iran for help, he argued. “Why is it then that the Azerbaijanis think that they can do whatever they want but that others cannot?” According to him, the Turks are not “so stupid” that they will play this game, but the Azerbaijanis appear not to understand just how dangerous the path on which they are embarked at home and abroad can become.
Azerbaijani state ideology is now based on a shameless “chauvinism,” one that blames Armenians for all of Baku’s own failures and seeks to suppress all minorities. Azerbaijan is not a democracy, and it is intolerant despite its claims to the contrary. But the dangers involved here are even greater than that, Shabanov said. “If Azerbaijan finally become a place des armes for pan-Turkism and radical Islam, then this will affect the entire Caucasus.” Neither Russia nor Iran will let that happen, he contended.
One of the first tasks of Moscow and Tehran is to dissuade Ankara from overstepping its bounds, something the two powers have already been doing with success, the advisor said. But equally important, they must “help restore the rights of the Talysh and Lezgins so that these peoples will not disappear.”
Azerbaijani outlets have not yet responded to Shabanov’s remarks, but it is almost certain that they will read them as an indication that Moscow intends to interfere in Azerbaijan’s domestic affairs even more directly than in the past. And this interference may come either via its embassy or, more likely (as has been true earlier), via Armenian actions. To the extent the Azerbaijani government reads the Russian advisor’s remarks in this way, tensions between Moscow and Baku will only grow, making what is already a tense situation even worse.