Azerbaijan: “lynchpin” of the Organization of Turkic States?

Founded in 2009, with the signing of the Nakhchivan Agreement, the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States transformed into a full-fledged international organization – the Organization of Turkic States – in November 2021 during the 8th Summit of the Council. The Organization, which includes Azerbaijan, Türkiye, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as founding member states, further took in Uzbekistan as a member, as well as Hungary and Turkmenistan as observer states. Its original purposes were maintaining peace in the region, exploring common positions on foreign policy, creating favorable environment for trade and investment, along with many other similar ideas aimed at enhancing mutual collaboration.

Now its activities range beyond original ones to involve cooperation in the fields of energy, media and information, tourism, transportation, education, agriculture and even space among a number of other areas of mutual interest. Organization of Turkic States also acts as an umbrella platform for different cooperation mechanisms consisted of Turkic-speaking states, such as the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), International Turkic Academy, Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation and Turkic Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Although Azerbaijan is the smallest member state of the Organization in terms of size of its territory, the country managed to turn into Organization’s “bridge for cooperation”, in fact a metaphorical lynchpin which brings together and effectively keeps both members and observers closely aligned in line with Organization’s goals and purposes. There are multiple explanations for Azerbaijan’s crucial role in the Organization of Turkic States, which can be grouped as historical, geographic and reputational.

Historical reasons

The foremost indicator that all member and observer states of the Organization of Turkic States jointly possess is their common Turkic historical background. Azerbaijan’s unique feature in this regard is that not only it has distant fraternal bonds but also relatively modern historical connections with all participants of the Organization.

Azerbaijan shared large portion of its contemporary history with its Central Asian counterparts at the Organization of Turkic States. Together with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan was a part of Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. Common history and interests help to identify grounds for cooperation, which are amplified on a regular basis. Besides Central Asian members of the Organization, Azerbaijan enjoys particularly positive relations with Türkiye. The ties between the two countries – often commended as “exemplary” – reached an all-time high with the signing of the “Shusha Declaration on Allied Relations” in 2021.

In other words, Azerbaijan’s ability to maintain profound and mutually beneficial relations with all member and observer states of the Organization of Turkic States, both in bilateral and multilateral settings, proved to be a key feature in the functioning of the Organization. Azerbaijan’s capacity to act as a bridge does not merely concern the processes within the Organization of Turkic States. In fact, Azerbaijan proved that its willingness to provide necessary diplomatic assistance as a mediator can also be a huge asset in mending ties with external actors when required. For instance, Azerbaijan played a critical role in the reconciliation process between Türkiye and Israel, which recently started to bear fruit.

Geographic reasons

Azerbaijan’s location in a critical juncture between Europe and Asia is a valuable asset in terms of transport connectivity for Organization’s members and observers. Azerbaijan’s geographic position allows it to navigate in all major transport projects that passes through South Caucasus. One of them is Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline project – a prospective design aiming to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan (and Kazakhstan) by subsea pipeline to Azerbaijan in order to further flow towards European Union. The project has enormous potential both for the Central Asian countries (for finding out alternative energy export routes) and European Union (due to energy security issues). If realized, it may become the eastward extension of the Southern Gas Corridor. Considering the acute energy crisis that is looming over the globe, this project might become a life-saving deal for the European Union in general.

Another significant project, in this regard, is Trans-Caspian International Transport Route or “Middle Corridor.” Azerbaijan’s location again proves crucial and is a reason for galvanizing necessary means into action for the realization of the project. The project is set to significantly decrease the travel time and costs incurred for transportation of goods from China to Europe. The importance of the Middle Corridor project has also been mentioned by the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev in a recent bilateral meeting with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, which attests once again the high value that Azerbaijani leadership attaches to it.

Yet another dimension of Azerbaijan’s (geographic) functionality in the implementation of transport and connectivity projects across the region is its ambitious plan to restore “Zangezur Corridor – a land route that connects mainland Azerbaijan’s western regions with Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic (Azerbaijan’s westernmost exclave region) by crossing Armenia.” The plan was also stated in the Trilateral Declaration of November 10, 2020, signed by leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia that effectively put an end to the 44 days of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Zangezur Corridor project has a special role for the future of Organization of Turkic States in general. Indeed, Zangezur Corridor is often rhetorically praised by political leaders as a historical project that will unite Turkic-speaking states geographically.

Reputational reasons

In spite of the fact that Azerbaijan re-gained its independence just over 30 years ago, the country has managed to garner considerably high esteem and reputation in international arena. In terms of multi-faceted relations with international organizations, as well as hosting important international events, Azerbaijan has proven itself as an active participant of various international platforms. Besides its ability to maintain solid multilateral relations, Azerbaijan has also paid a close attention to develop positive relations at bilateral level with states situated at all regions of the globe. As a consequence, Azerbaijan has successfully built high level of trust with diverse international actors, some of which have clashing interests among themselves.

Aside from its notable role in the ranks of the Organization of Turkic States, Azerbaijan has also emerged as an indispensable actor as the chairman of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) for the last three years, where member states extended Azerbaijan’s chairmanship term for an additional year. Azerbaijan put forward many important initiatives and hosted numerous events in line with NAM’s goals and purposes, such as the creation of NAM Parliamentary Network, NAM Youth Network, allocation of scholarships for the citizens of NAM member states and so on.

Last but not least, Azerbaijan’s massive military victory over Armenia and liberation of Azerbaijani territories that remained under Armenia’s brutal military occupation for decades caused a steady growth of Azerbaijan’s reputation. As a country that re-gained control over its occupied territories, Azerbaijan’s position in the Organization of Turkic States has become even more critical and Azerbaijan’s ability to shape the Organization’s agenda has grown. In short, Azerbaijan’s status as a victorious country and a key international actor raised the level of expectations by others in the Organization and beyond.

To sum up, the Organization of Turkic States and its growing importance in international politics requires continuous study of the Organization, its members and wider geopolitical agenda that cover geography with Turkic roots.

Azerbaijan, despite its own heavy burden (such as restoration of Karabakh region which was reduced to rubble during Armenia’s 30-years-long military occupation until its liberation in 2020 and relocation of Azerbaijan’s almost a million internally displaced persons and refugees), has acted as an essential international partner within many organizations and in its relations with state actors generally. Azerbaijan tremendous contributions to the functioning and steady development of the Organization of Turkic States need due attention. The core reasons behind Azerbaijan’s success of effectively being a “lynchpin” of the Organization of Turkic States can be briefly categorized as historical, geographic and reputational. Azerbaijan wields all necessary values and capabilities for advancing interests of the Organization of Turkic States regionally and globally, in addition to facilitating Organization’s journey on transformation into an even more closely-knit community that moves forward for a better future and beyond.

Guntaj Mirzayev
Guntaj Mirzayev
Guntaj Mirzayev is an independent analyst on international security issues. He received his masters degree in International Security Studies from Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna and University of Trento.