The downing of the Russian aircraft by the Turkish air force has brought the dynamically developing Russian-Turkish relations to a deadlock. What was the real reason of such a decision given that today Moscow actually refuses to come to an agreement with Ankara?
Azerbaijan, like most of the world, takes a different view of this incident. Russian military planes, despite Turkey's protests, were bombing the Syrian regions inhabited by Turkomans near Turkey's border and breached that border multiple times. Moscow, however, wrongly overstated the level of contradictions between Turkey and the USA, and expected that in the current situation Ankara might be impelled to assist Russia. Moscow underestimates Turkey, whose GDP and population total over half of Russia's GDP and population. Moreover, Turkey's economy is diversified and not resource-based one, while the population is young and growing. Turkey's military capacity does not yield to the Russian one. Moreover, Turkey may rely on NATO and the bilateral union with the USA, and this stops Moscow from using or threatening with missile-nuclear weapons.
In order to understand Ankara's position, one should imagine hypothetically that at the request of quite legitimate Ukrainian President Poroshenko, Turkish Air Defense forces would start bombing the terrorists and Russian "volunteers" in the so called Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic. Just as Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire. It borders with Turkey and a significant number of ethnic Turks - so called Turkomans - live on this territory. I suppose the conflict in the Russian-Turkish relations, which have been rather friendly for many decades, has been caused by Moscow's demonstrative and provocative disregard of Turkey's vital interests. The sides will not benefit from such a conflict and both sides are suffering losses. Both Ankara and Moscow realize this but their leaders' ambitions and "great empire" complex prevent the sides from taking pragmatic steps towards each other.
May the exacerbating Russian-Turkish conflict force the Azerbaijani leadership to make a choice between Moscow and Ankara?
Baku will try to evade such a choice in every possible way. "Turkey is a strategic ally and a brotherly state for Azerbaijan, while Russia is a neighbor and a strategic partner of Azerbaijan. It is obvious that Azerbaijan will not join forces with Moscow against Turkey under any circumstances. Moreover, it will try to evade military involvement in the conflict in every possible way. Azerbaijan might hypothetically get involved in the conflict on Turkey's side only in case the conflict extends into the South Caucasus. In this case, Azerbaijan will have to determine its involvement with due regard for the behaviors and stands of Armenia, Georgia, Iran and NATO first of all. I would like to emphasize that I am expressing an expert opinion, not an official position. But I do not think my opinion significantly differs from the official stand.
Azerbaijan is actively participating in creation of a military bloc involving Georgia and Turkey. Who can such a bloc be directed against and what are the real goals of it?
There is no such a tripartite military bloc. In fact, Turkey and Azerbaijan have concluded an allied agreement, which includes a military component. As regards Georgia, there is a tripartite agreement with that country and the agreement provides for close trilateral cooperation limited to ensuring the security of the strategic pipelines. Though the defense cooperation between Turkey and Georgia is significant, it is implemented in a bilateral rather than trilateral format. Formation of an Ankara-Tbilisi-Baku military axis is possible only in response to direct pressure from the north or the south. But even in that case, it will need the United States' consent and support.
One should confess that Russia with Iran like Turkey with Saudi Arabia have stuck in Syria - the epicenter of the chaos in the Greater Middle East. Meantime, the United States, which is accused of provoking the Syrian crisis, limits its steps to statements at the level of the Department of State. Do you see any paradox here?
It may seem so at first sight only. Indeed, the U.S. prefers staying aside and following the situation at the current stage. Either the situation so far meets Washington's scenario or the U.S. is simply waiting for "the moment to mature" given that its military capacity "has not disappeared". In the Mediterranean and not far from it, in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, there are aircraft carrier groups, subsurface launch platforms, torpedo boat destroyers with cruise missiles and anti-aircraft missile systems 'Ijis,' while the U.S. Air Force is deployed at Incirlik military base in Turkey. As regards Russia's unexpected interference with Syria, it proved even useful to the Untied States, as it made Turkey and Saudi Arabia be in the wake of Washington's foreign policy.
Azerbaijan - like the other countries of the South Caucasus - is just a few hundred kilometers away from the epicenter of instability in the Greater Middle East. Does Baku consider the chaotic situation in Syria, Iraq and other adjacent territories as a direct threat to its own security given the radical Islamic sentiments in Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan faces no direct threat of Islamization. The radical Islamic sentiments in our country are considerably exaggerated by local and foreign analysts. The ratio of the number of Azerbaijani natives in the ISIS against the quantity of the Muslim population is dozens of times as low as the number of natives of Russia and even EU countries. Our security structures and law-enforcement bodies not only keep a close eye on the situation but also take active preventive measures. Any extreme forms of religiosity, no matter whether they are of Shiite or Sunni nature, do not meet the traditional religious and cultural tolerance of Azerbaijan. Therefore, such attempts are strongly suppressed.
Iran takes no part in the OSCE Minsk Group’s efforts in the Karabakh peace process, but at an unofficial level its role and stand are taken into consideration. What changes can the lifting of the western sanctions against Tehran result in?
Iran is no member of the OSCE and its direct participation in the activities of the Minsk Group has no institutional grounds. I can see no other intermediary format involving Tehran at the moment. However, Tehran can strengthen its influence on the peaceful resolution of the problem through a mechanism of consultations with the parties involved in the process, as well as through bilateral contacts with Azerbaijan and Armenia. As regards the lifting of the western sanctions from Iran and the removal of the threat of military strikes against Iran in the light of its nuclear program, I qualify them as a positive element in strengthening of security and cooperation in the South Caucasus. One should only hail it.
Do you see any external - including geopolitical - factors among the reasons of the rather hard socio-economic situation and the unrest in Azerbaijan or is everything explained with the reduction in oil prices and the manat exchange rate?
I see no geopolitical reasons unless the oil price reduction games are taken into account. The scale of the unrest and difficult socio-economic situation in Azerbaijan is vividly exaggerated. Azerbaijan has still a favorable balance of payment. The aggregate forex reserves of the Central Bank and the State Oil Fund exceed $35 billion, with the foreign debt being 12-13% of GDP. These are one of the best indices in the region and in the world. At the yearend of 2015, we demonstrated economic growth, though it was not big - 1%. Azerbaijan has come across certain problems due to the fourfold reduction in oil and gas prices, because the budget was estimated basing on the oil price of $50 per barrel, however, the price dropped to $30 at the beginning of the year. Certainly, one could "burn" the forex reserves. However, when the situation on the oil market is uncertain and the key partners of Azerbaijan - European Union, Turkey, Georgia - have reduced the exchange rates of their currencies against US dollar by more than 30%, with Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine reducing the exchange rate over twofold, a decision was taken to suppress the pressure on manat by means of 50% depreciation. This was a difficult but timely decision approved by the IMF and the World Bank. The government keeps the situation under control. The depreciation was immediately followed by growth in minimum wages for state workers. The Government curbs the growth in prices of food and keeps the tariffs of fuel, utilities and transport services unchanged. Having revised the budget, the government recalculated it basing on the conservative estimate of the oil price ($25). Now the price quotation is higher than $30. The Parliament will shortly consider these proposals. So, the sharp decline in budget revenues created tangible difficulties for the population, business and the government, but at the same time it stimulated reforms.