Prime Minister Erdogan puts Baku’s Armenia concerns to rest

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday appeared to have put strained relations with Azerbaijan back on track after giving firm and clear assurances to the regional ally that Turkey would not open its closed border with Armenia unless the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory ended.

"There is a relation of cause and effect here. The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh is a cause, and the closure of the border is an effect. Without the occupation ending, the gates will not be opened," Erdogan said at a joint press conference with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during a visit to Baku.

Aliyev, who refused to attend an Alliance of Civilizations meeting in Istanbul in April in protest of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts, said he was grateful for Erdogan`s statement. "There could be no clearer answer than this. There is no doubt anymore," Aliyev said.

Turkish and Armenian diplomats have been holding secret talks for the last year and a half to normalize their relations, and last month the two countries announced a "roadmap" to restore ties, which would include reopening the border. Turkey closed its border and severed diplomatic ties with Armenia in 1993 in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan after Armenian forces invaded the Nagorno-Karabakh region and surrounding territory during a war between the two countries. Azerbaijan, an ethnic and regional ally and a key supplier of natural gas for Turkey, has expressed concern over the Turkish-Armenian talks, fearing it would lose major leverage if Turkey opened its border with Armenian without progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Azerbaijani leaders also signaled that they would increase the price of natural gas for Turkey as political tension increased.

Aliyev said yesterday that concerns grew in his country when there was no response from Turkey to reports in the Armenian media that the border would be reopened. In an address to the Azerbaijani parliament later in the day, Erdogan appealed to the Azerbaijani people to trust his words rather than media speculation.

"Some reports said Turkey gave up on Nagorno-Karabakh in order to normalize relations with Armenia. This is an outright lie. I dismiss it once again here," Erdogan told Azerbaijani lawmakers. His speech, adorned with citations from Turkish and Azerbaijani poets, was frequently applauded. Erdogan said Turkey and Azerbaijan were "one nation with two states" and that their ties were based on unshakable premises.

Erdogan`s government also faced criticism from the nationalist opposition at home over the Armenia drive. Opposition parties have accused the government of sacrificing ties with Azerbaijan without any solid concession from Yerevan. Turkish-Armenian ties are also problematic because of Armenian claims that a genocide took place at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, a charge categorically rejected by Turkey.

"Our stance on Nagorno-Karabakh is clear, and there has never been any deviation from this stance," Erdodan told the Azerbaijani parliament. "We want the problem to be resolved on the basis of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan."

"We have never taken any steps that could harm the national interests of Azerbaijan and will never take such steps," Erdogan said. "There will be no normalization unless the occupation of Azerbaijani territory ends." The prime minister insisted that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue had never been ignored in the course of efforts to normalize ties with Armenia, adding that the two processes should go hand in hand. "Otherwise we are not in this business," he said.

But he also defended his government`s policy of reconciliation with Armenia, saying that a lack of solution in the disputes in the southern Caucasus was in the interest of no one. Erdogan also said Turkey`s efforts were aimed not only at normalization in ties with Armenia but also contributing to the welfare and stability of the entire region.

Erdogan`s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has promised "zero problems with neighbors" since it came to power in 2002. Efforts to normalize relations with Armenia gained momentum after a Russian-Georgian war in August over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Erdogan said in his parliamentary address that his government had worked hard to push the Nagorno-Karabakh problem to the forefront of the international political agenda. When US President Barack Obama visited Turkey in early April, the Nagorno-Karabakh problem was the most important issue highlighted by the Turkish side during the talks, he said.

But he once again urged the United States, as well as Russia and France, to speed up efforts to find a resolution to the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute, saying pleasant words and wishes were not enough to bring about a breakthrough. The three countries have been leading international efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, but their nearly two-decade work has so far produced little progress. Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarksyan, met in Prague earlier this month to discuss their territorial dispute, and they are expected to meet again in Russia next month to continue the talks. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have said there was no progress in the Prague meeting.

The United States and the European Union back Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, but they are also wary of losing Azerbaijan, whose participation in Western plans to curb European dependence on Russia for energy is key to success of any project to that effect. Amid tension with Turkey, Aliyev visited Russia, causing concerns that Baku is inching towards Russia at the expense of its ties with the West.

Asked to comment on his country`s ties with Russia, Aliyev said yesterday that Azerbaijan`s relations with Russia were important and had a long history, without elaborating.

Gas price increase on the way

Erdogan, who traveled to Baku accompanied by Energy Minister Taner Yildiz and other ministers, said officials from the two countries would discuss changing the price at which Ankara purchases Azerbaijani natural gas.

Turkey currently purchases 6.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas, about one-sixth of its total annual need, from Azerbaijan at a discount price of $120 per 1,000 cubic meters. It pays an average of about $250 per 1,000 cubic meters for natural gas it purchases from other suppliers. Some of that gas is shipped on to Greece. Turkey is seeking an additional 8 billion cubic meters of gas from Azerbaijan.

"I cannot say that the price is fair," Erdogan said at the press conference with Aliyev. "We will have talks and make sure the price will be a fair one."

Partners in the 7.9 billion euro Nabucco project, aimed at cutting Europe`s dependency on Russian gas, want Azerbaijani gas to fill the pipeline when it opens in 2013. Nabucco will eventually carry about 30 billion cubic meters of gas from the Caspian and Middle East to meet about 5 percent of European demand.


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