A high-level meeting reportedly set to take place later this year in Turkmenistan could put talk of building a natural gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea back on the agenda.
The Associated Press on July 23 cited Turkey’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Mustafa Kapucu, as saying that the presidents of his country, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will meet to discuss the issue. The talks pick up from the EU-brokered Ashgabat Declaration of May 2015, which was signed by the energy ministries of the three countries and set down objectives like creating a legal framework for gas sales by Turkmenistan to Europe and “[developing] constructive dialogue” on the required infrastructure.
The fact that heads of state are set to sit around the table presumably suggests all the governments involved envision a transition from preliminary paper-shuffling to some concrete breakthrough, although experience teaches that this may not be the case.
The resurgence of interest in trans-Caspian would come at a timely juncture for Turkmenistan, which is now reduced to selling almost all of its gas to China. A small if growing amount if being sent to neighboring Iran.
Diversification of export routes has long been an article of dogma for Turkmenistan, and yet it has exasperatingly seen only a reduction of its international markets in recent years. Its erstwhile main customer Russia bought 45 billion cubic meters of gas in 2008, but that has through a series of commercial and diplomatic vicissitudes dwindled to nothing.
Since gas is so important to Turkmenistan, many have surmised that the country’s economy is performing far worse than the government officially allows for.
The Azerbaijani government was forced to deny Turkish press reports that Turkey was establishing a military base in the country.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed an agreement "confirming the protocols on the transfer of buildings and structures in the military cantonment Gyzyl Shryag and the terminal at the military airfield in Zainalabdin Tagiyev to the use of the armed forces of the Turkish republic," Azerbaijani media reported on Thursday.
From that legalese, some Turkish media oversimplified the news. "Turkey to establish military base in Azerbaijan," the state Anadolu Agency wrote in its headline. "Azerbaijan signs protocol allowing Turkey to establish military base," the state-run Daily Sabah wrote.
Azerbaijan's constitution, however, forbids the establishment of any foreign military base in the country, and government officials quickly clarified. "Press reports about the creation of a military base of any country do not have any basis and do not correspond to reality," Deputy Defense Minister Ramiz Tahirov told the AzerTaj news agency.
What exactly constitutes a "base" isn't always clear, but this is a largely bureaucratic move, explained Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, director of the Caspian Defense Studies Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. Around 60-70 Turkish soldiers are stationed in Azerbaijan, largely as trainers for various branches of the Azerbaijani security services, Sumerinli said.
As Turkey focused its coup-cleanup operations on its education system, its close ally Azerbaijan on July 20 announced the closure of Caucasus University, the country's first private university, founded by supporters of the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, now charged by Ankara with plotting to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The decision brought back memories of 2014 when, as Turkey started to raise the alarm about Gülen, a former government pal, Azerbaijani authorities closed 13 education centers and 11 high schools associated with the cleric’s movement. They were transferred to the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR).
One Turkish company Çağ Öğrətim (Era Education), believed linked to Gülen, however, had shared control of Caucasus University with SOCAR and another firm.
No more. SOCAR Vice-President for Human Resources Khalig Mammadov posted on his Facebook page that control over Caucasus University has been given to the state-run Baku Higher Oil School .
“Students . . . will continue their education as before,” Mammadov wrote. “The teaching staff of the university will also continue their work.”
The education ministry told APA that after receiving the relevant documents, it will create a working group to allow Caucasus University students to continue their education elsewhere.
In remarks to the Batumi broadcaster TV25, Consul Yasin Temizkan charged that the Refaiddin Şahin Friendship School, which teaches five to 12-year-old children, “is not serving the government; they’re serving terrorist groups.” The Gülen network, he claimed, uses such schools “to strengthen their own position.”
Temizkan said that he would petition Georgia’s education ministry “in the nearest future” to close the school. In the meantime, he called on parents to withdraw their children from the school.
Speaking with TV25, Refaiddin Şahin Friendship School Principal Elguja Davitadze, however, denied the allegations.
How the Georgian government will respond is unclear, but a demand from Ankara to close the school could put Tbilisi in an awkward situation. Turkey is a close economic and security partner for Georgia, yet, at the same time, the government can ill afford to shut the door on foreign investors without cause.
Russian politicians and state media sounded sharp alarm about the July 15 military-coup attempt in Turkey, Moscow's traditional regional rival, with some calling for "responsible organs" to come to the rescue of Russian citizens in Turkey. By contrast, officials in the South Caucasus, which borders directly on Turkey, expressed much greater caution .
The failed coup attempt led to the deaths of 1,661 people, and the injury of 1,440, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced at an afternoon briefing on July 16 in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Some 2,839 armed-forces personnel allegedly involved in the coup-plot have now been arrested, he said, according to Turkey's official Anadolu Agency.
Yet even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the coup had been put down, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency led with a statement from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that “we should undertake all measures for the defense of the interests of our citizens, and also our companies, our entities . . . “ in Turkey.
What measures, if any, were under consideration is not clear, but Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Alexander Romanovich, citing alleged bombing by Turkish military planes, earlier in the morning of July 16 called for "our responsible organs" to organize the immediate evacuation of all Russian citizens from Turkey.
NATO put off a decision on creating an alliance Black Sea naval force, which had been promoted by several alliance members as a means of beefing up the NATO presence on its southeastern border with Russia.
The alliance, as expected, agreed to set up a multinational land brigade based in Romania, which is intended to "contribute to the Alliance’s strengthened deterrence and defence posture, situational awareness, and peacetime demonstration of NATO’s intent to operate without constraint" and "provide a strong signal of support to regional security," according to the final communique issued by the alliance at the conclusion of its summit on Saturday in Warsaw.
But as for increasing sea or air activities around the Black Sea, NATO agreed to keep discussing: "Options for a strengthened NATO air and maritime presence will be assessed." It continued: "We will continue to address the implications for NATO of developments in the region and take them into account in the Alliance’s approaches and policies. We will continue to support, as appropriate, regional efforts by the Black Sea littoral states aimed at ensuring security and stability. We will also strengthen our dialogue and cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine in this regard."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Sochi on July 1, the first high-level meeting in seven months between the two countries. (photo: MFA Russia)
Turkey's foreign minister floated a proposal to let Russia use a key air base for a joint fight against ISIS in Syria. He later qualified the offer, but it nevertheless was a measure of how rapidly Turkey's foreign policy, in particular its relationship to Russia, is changing.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT that Turkey would cooperate with"“everybody who is fighting Islamic State," adding: "Ankara has opened the Incirlik airbase to all those wishing to join the active fight. Why not cooperate with Russia in the same manner?”
Those remarks caused a minor furor in Turkey and Russia, given what until just a few days ago was a dangerous level of tension between the two states caused by Turkey's shooting down last year of a Russian plane on the Turkey-Syria border.
Cavusoglu was forced to clarify: "We said that we could cooperate with Russia in the period ahead in the fight against Daesh ...I did not make any comment referring to Russian planes coming to the Incirlik Air Base."
Not everyone was convinced by that denial. "I think officials in Ankara wanted to see the possible reactions about Incirlik issue," said Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu, an analyst who follows Turkish relations with the post-Soviet world. "Even pro-governmental media published the same speech but a few hours later [Cavusoglu] denied it. It was an attempt to understand domestic and international balance," Öztarsu said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He added that while Russia's use of Incirlik -- a key hub for NATO allies including the United States -- was unlikely, some form of military cooperation could be expected to develop between Turkey and Russia.
The trail of the terrorist attack on Istanbul airport that killed 42 people looks now to be leading inexorably to the former Soviet Union, and Central Asia in particular.
The New York Times cited Turkish officials as saying on June 30 that the three suicide bombers that mounted the attack were citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.
Turkey has already linked this to the Islamic State militant group, which is known to have large groups of Central Asian and Russian citizens among its ranks. Estimates on the exact number of Central Asians in the group vary, however, from the low hundreds into the thousands.
Turkey has said that 13 people, including three foreigners, have been detained in connection with the attack on Istanbul’s main airport on June 28. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which also claimed victims among Uzbek citizens, according to Turkish media.
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry cast some confusion over proceedings by telling media that it could not confirm that one of its citizens had been linked the bombings.
“Employees from the Kyrgyz consulate met with representatives from the anti-terrorism department in Istanbul. They did not confirm the information. According to them, the identity of the suicide bombers is still being established,” the ministry said.
That statement appeared to have been superseded by events, however.
Shortly after the explosions, hundreds of travelers from nearby countries checked in as safe on Facebook, underscoring the facility’s role as the region’s ultimate layover point. A place where rabbis and mullahs hang out in one lounge, Slavs snap up perfumes and purses at duty-free stores, and Georgians seem to permanently hold court in Starbucks, IST is the world’s third busiest airport and a veritable melting pot.
For many, it is much more than that.
“I spent endless hours there, watching people and munching on that free rahat lokum [Turkish delight],” one Azerbaijani businesswoman, Aygul, who passed through Istanbul two days before the attack, said via Facebook Messenger. “You sit there, look at all these people from everywhere and all the world’s differences seem so small and unimportant.”
Canadian artist Melanie Mehrer wrote Tamada Tales that, on the night of the attack, she had been drawing at an airport Starbucks when two Pakistani men, artists en route to an exhibit in Moscow, noticed her work and struck up a conversation. “We spent a good hour gabbing about art, Islam, Islamic Art, politics, weird stories in our countries' news, what it feels like to feel connected and rooted in your own culture . . .or not. “
For Georgians like Zurab Tatanashvili, an assistant professor of social work at Tbilisi State University, Istanbul airport became synonymous with a door to the West after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. “Many other Georgians and I first went to the West through that airport and the West came here through it as well,” he commented by phone.