Longtime Azerbaijani ally Turkey appears to be taking on a larger role in supporting the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an Azerbaijani exclave sandwiched between Armenia and Iran. The first steps in this intensified cooperation are taking shape just months after plans for rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia went into cold storage.
Turkey, which shares an 11-kilometer border with the exclave, has long acted to provide support to ensure that the isolated exclave of 40,000 people survived. Both Ankara and Baku cite the 1921 Treaty of Kars, which defined Nakhchivan as part of Azerbaijan, as the basis for this support.
But with Baku now an influential regional economic power, that relationship has become less about Nakhchivan’s immediate survival, and more about long-term, strategic projects for the exclave, which shares a 246-kilometer-long border with Armenia.
The new role centers on the critical Azerbaijani-Turkish tie of energy as well as on transportation access to Istanbul, a regional trading hub, and eastern Turkey.
Under a July 17 contract between the Turkish government and the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR), Turkey will transport 500 mullion cubic meters of Azerbaijani natural gas to Nakhchivan each year transit-free. SOCAR will finance construction of a new, 50-kilometer-long pipeline from the Turkish town of Igdir, near Erzurum, to provide the gas.
Work on the pipeline will begin in August, with a launch slotted for the end of 2011, state news agency AzerTAJ reported SOCAR President Rovnag Abdullayev as saying.
Nakhchivan currently relies on gas shuttled via Iran, which charges a 15-percent transit fee for about 300 mcm per year. The Turkey pipeline deal “will allow [Baku] to almost double the gas supplies to Nakhchivan for lower prices,” commented energy expert Ilham Shaban.
With stronger energy ties, come better transportation options for trade as well. In late June, Turkish Airlines’ discount subsidiary, Anadolu Jet, started offering direct flights from Nakhchivan to Istanbul three times a week for about $175. In July, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz promised that the number of flights to Istanbul would increase still further, Azerbaijani news sources reported.
Air travel is currently the only option for reaching Nakhchivan from the rest of Azerbaijan, but plans also exist to restore the land connection to Azerbaijan with Turkey’s help.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Transportation has opened a tender for a feasibility study on connecting the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad to Nakhchivan via Igdir, a ministry spokesperson said. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad has a planned finish date of mid-2011; work on the Nakhchivan offshoot would begin subsequently, the head of the ministry’s Department of Transportation Policy and Economy, Sadraddin Mammadov, stated in May, ANS TV reported.
Both the flights and the promised rail link could make a critical economic difference for Nakhchivan’s population, commented one freelance journalist based in Nakhchivan.
“[P]etty trade is the only way to earn a living for many residents,” said Elman Abbasov, who is no relation to this EurasiaNet.org reporter. “People take cigarettes and alcohol, which are cheaper in Nakhchivan than in Turkey, and bring back money or various goods.” Many Nakhchivan families also depend on remittances from relatives who have gone to Turkey for work, he added.
Most Azerbaijanis take Turkey’s support for Nakhchivan as a matter of course, but the latest assistance projects were preceded with a clear message to Yerevan from Turkey.
Six days after Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan froze the reconciliation process with Turkey on April 22, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu underlined that the territory’s security is “one of Turkey’s foreign policy priorities.” [For details, see the EurasiaNet.org archive.] The comments coincided with an April 28 visit to Ankara by Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic Parliamentary Chairperson Vasif Talybov.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went still further, noting that “Nakhchivan is exposed to various threats from the Armenian state.”
“Therefore, military cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan and the NAR [Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic] is one of the major components of our relations,” Erdogan said.
Azerbaijan maintains a base in Nakhchivan that has received heavy Turkish support in the past, but no official information is available about the current scope of military cooperation between the two countries in the exclave.
Political analyst Rasim Musabekov, though, does not see “anything new” in the plans for Turkey’s increased presence in Nakhchivan.
“Now Azerbaijan is much stronger economically and the cooperation has moved to a higher level -- to the construction of a new pipeline and new railroad. There is an international airport in Nakhchivan now and, thus, there is a flight to Istanbul. It is a natural process,” he said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.