Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) and Azerbaijani Minister of Culture and Tourism Abulfaz Garayev (2nd L) attend the opening ceremony of Contemporary Turkish Painters Exhibition held for 25th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan in Baku, Azerbaijan on September 06, 2017
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created a great opportunity for Turkey to be fully present in the five republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus - Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In fact, Turkey, as the only Turkish- speaking country in the world, has tried to take advantage of its linguistic affinity with these republics, and expand its cultural influence in them. Due to its ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious similarities with Azerbaijan, Turkey has tried to play a significant role in this country, and develop its influence in it. The Turkish government planned to influence all the Azeri economic, political, cultural and educational spheres. In the cultural sphere, Turkish-language media was considered as one of the tools of Turkish influence in Azerbaijan, and the launch of satellite channels just for Azerbaijan was placed on the agenda of Ankara. In addition to media programs, adopting policies such as offering scholarships for the Azeri students, college students and seminarians, constructing numerous schools, providing educational needs and dispatching teachers, printing and distributing various textbooks and dispatching missionaries are considered as other Turkish measures in Azerbaijan. These measures have been accelerated since the establishment of the Turkish Caucasus University in Baku in 1993 by the Turkish businessmen.
The cultural influence of Turkey in Azerbaijan was faced with challenges from the very beginning, but due to good political relations between Ankara and Baku, and especially due to Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan’s positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the cultural challenges between the two countries were less visible. But, over time and with the consolidation of the political stability in Azerbaijan and the country’s access to oil revenues, the challenges facing Turkey in the field of cultural diplomacy were highlighted. The first challenge to Turkey was the nationalist component, in other words, it was the ethnic prejudice of the Azeri people. The people of this country, although they are of Turkish descent, have considered themselves to be Azeri, and believe that they have a several thousand years-old civilization, while the history of pan-Turkism only goes back to more than two hundred years ago. Pan-Turkism believed that nations in Central Asia and the Caucasus with Turkish origins are from the great Turkish nation who should come together under a single flag.
In fact, the hidden desire of Turkey was to become known as the big brother of the Turkish-speaking countries. But having a Shiite culture and defining themselves under Iran’s civilization, the people of Azerbaijan were not willing to accept pan-Turkism. The fact that Azerbaijan and other Turkish-speaking countries of Central Asia did not welcome the pan-Turkish programs, and that they paid attention to their own ethnic nationalism have challenged the Turkish project of uniting the Turkish-speaking countries. The existence of Islam and the Shia religion was also another challenge for Turkey which prevented it to exercise its cultural influence in Azerbaijan. More than ninety-five percent of the people of Azerbaijan are Muslim; about eighty-five percent are Shiites and more than 10 percent are Sunnis. Therefore, Azeri people who are prejudiced not only about their national identity, but also about their Shiite identity, cannot accept the religious superiority of Turkey with a Sunni religion. In recent years, Turkey’s support for extremist groups who are fighting against the legitimate governments in Syria and Iraq, and the joint efforts of Saudi Arabia and Turkey to promote Wahhabism and recruit Azeri Muslims to be sent to Syria and Iraq have caused more cultural differentiation between Ankara and Baku.
This cultural differentiation is embodied in the form of the closure of mosques supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia in Baku and other cities. Of course, the fact that Turkey has some regional rivals, including the Islamic Republic of Iran which has a lot of cultural similarities with the people of Azerbaijan, serves as another obstacle to the Turkish widespread cultural influence in Azerbaijan. In these circumstances, I think, since Turkey is accompanying Saudi Arabia to develop extreme radicalism in this region, the trust of countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, including the Azerbaijan, in the Turkish cultural policies has faded away, and this will gradually diminish the cultural influence of this country, in my idea, in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
© International Peace Studies Center
Mohsen Pakaeen, Former Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Republic of Azerbaijan, is the senior fellow at IRAS.
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