Why is Erdoğan’s Visit to Shusha so Important?
The Shusha Declaration could be a big step towards stability in the Caspian region. Image: Azerbaijan Presidential Website
On June 15, 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Shusha, a key city of Karabakh that Azerbaijan regained from Armenian control during the 2020 war. This very symbolic choice of venue underlines the importance of the meeting not just for the participant countries but for the region in general. It’s the first time that a Turkish leader has ever visited the Karabakh region, and taken with Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan during the recent war, the visit can be seen as a direct message to countries in the area that Turkey is looking to extend its role in the region.
For many media outlets, that message basically summed up the whole substance of their Shusha meeting reports. However, there was much more. Erdoğan’s main speech was itself a remarkable one, laden with apparent olive branches. He spoke of a “new opportunity for cooperation” for all nations in the region, and insisted that Azerbaijan has a genuine spirit of goodwill in advancing a stable peace. He was unambiguous in stating that Turkey wants to “evolve our neighbourly relations [with Armenia] into deeper cooperation,” repeating that Ankara is prepared to normalize relations with Yerevan. This, Erdoğan insisted, was a great “historical opportunity” that should not be allowed to go to waste amid the “politics of hate and provocation.” He also reiterated the need for a “platform of six” countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Russia and Iran) to work together in concert to ensure a region that is peaceful and prosperous.
The meeting culminated in the leaders signing the Shusha Declaration. While that agreement outlines many areas of cooperation, three points are especially significant. Firstly, the agreement starts with unambiguous references to the century-old Treaty of Kars. Signed in October 1921, that was the agreement which, after WWI and other post-war conflicts, finally settled the borders between what would become the USSR and Turkey. Notably, however, the Soviet signatories of the treaty included separate delegations from Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian Soviet Republics with the participation of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Despite the claims of many Armenian politicians, including the incumbent acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, it was not, in fact, the USSR itself that signed the Treaty of Kars.
By Armenian logic, if the now-defunct Soviet Union had been the sole signatory, then Armenia might not need to feel bound by a treaty that it hadn’t signed. It could then try to establish its borders based on the earlier Treaty of Sèvres. That 1920 treaty had carved up former Ottoman territories, giving a considerable part of Western Anatolia to Armenia, but was considered so unfair by Turkey that it essentially sparked the Turkish War of Independence. So, returning to the present, starting the Shusha Declaration with a clear commitment to the Treaty of Kars sends an open message to Armenia.
The second important point of the Shusha Declaration is a commitment to the Zanzegur corridor, allowing direct transport links between Western Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan (which is currently a disconnected Azerbaijani exclave). While the notion of such a corridor was part of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, there is still no explicit agreement on how it will be established. Progress has proved slower than Baku would like, and Ilham Aliyev has recently said that if an agreement can’t be reached, Azerbaijan could establish it through the use of force. By underlining the importance of the Zanzegur corridor in the Shusha Declaration, Turkey appears to signal that it would help Azerbaijan achieve it by whatever means necessary.
Lastly, President Erdoğan declared that a Turkish Consulate would be opened in the city of Shusha. As well as being highly symbolic, that would allow the coordination and acceleration of investments, reinforcing the message that Turkey is looking at beefing up cooperation with Azerbaijan and establishing a stronger presence in the region than has ever been seen before.