Azerbaijan Embraces Northern Cyprus

Baku’s overtures towards an unrecognised territory cause controversy.

Azerbaijan Embraces Northern Cyprus

Baku’s overtures towards an unrecognised territory cause controversy.

The first commercial passenger aircraft flew from Baku to northern Cyprus on July 27, strengthening Azerbaijan’s ties with the internationally unrecognised territory.

It comes at time when the Caucasian state is having problems with its own territorial integrity.

On June 29, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev said after receiving Turkish prime minister Recep Tayip Erdogan that the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus ought to be allowed more contact with the rest of the world and that Baku was sympathetic to that goal.

“Northern Cyprus should escape from its international isolation and we are ready to help it with this,” said Aliev. “So Azerbaijani companies can collaborate with their colleagues in northern Cyprus and we also plan to open a direct charter flight.”

Immediately after this, two airlines, the Azerbaijani company Imair and the Turkish company Improtex announced that regular flights would begin between Azerbaijan and northern Cyprus.

“On Sundays we will begin to make passenger flights to Ercan airport.. not far from….Lefkosa [known internationally as Nicosia],” said Alexander Guliev, director of Improtex Travel.

“The opening of air travel by our company to northern Cyprus has nothing to do with politics and is explained by the attractions of a new region for tourists from Azerbaijan and the lack of a visa regime.”

After years of inter-communal violence, Cyprus was divided into two parts in 1974 after a coup d’etat sponsored by the then military regime in Greece triggered an invasion by Turkish forces, who occupied the northern third of the island. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was established in 1983 but has only ever been recognised by Turkey, while the rest of the world continues to regard the Republic of Cyprus in the south as the only legitimate government on the island.

The latest attempt at reunification failed in 2004 after a UN-sponsored plan was approved in a referendum by Turkish voters but rejected by Greeks. As a result, the southern Republic of Cyprus became a member of the European Union on its own.

Azerbaijan, with its traditionally strong links to Turkey, has also developed ties with Turkish Cyprus. At the end of July, the Union of Businessman of Azerbaijan and Turkey organised a trip by businessmen to Cyprus. And a parliamentary delegation recently visited northern part of the island with the aim, according to deputy Hadi Recebli, of “supporting the Turkish Cypriots”.

Mustafa Evran, head of Turkish Cyprus’ Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan, told journalists that eight Azerbaijani companies are now working in northern Cyprus.

Turkish prime minister Erdogan said that Azerbaijan was close to recognising the sovereignty of northern Cyprus, saying, “I hope that Azerbaijan’s steps in this direction will continue.”

However, although the issue of recognising northern Cyprus has been on the agenda of the Azerbaijani parliament several times, it has not been debated because of sensitivity over the issue of Nagorny Karabakh, the unrecognised Armenian-controlled republic that exists on what is the internationally recognised territory of Azerbaijan.

Mehmet Ali Talat, who is now president of northern Cyprus, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriet that the Greek Cypriot community had threatened to open a direct flight to Nagorny Karabakh, dismissing this as an empty gesture.

The Azerbaijani opposition is accusing the government of using the Cyprus question as a means of winning political dividends ahead of the forthcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for November 6.

Elkhan Mekhdiev, a political analyst and member of the Musavat political party, noted, “It’s being done now because the world is ready for this and the USA and European Union realise the necessity of the northern part of the island emerging from isolation. Aliev also wants to receive the support of Ankara in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.”

Vafa Guluzade, a former presidential aide to Aliev’s late father, Heidar Aliev, supported the current head of state. “There is a power struggle in Azerbaijan and Aliev is using this issue in the struggle,” he told IWPR. “But on the whole these steps should be supported. I even think that we must recognise northern Cyprus as a state. Ilham Aliev ought to make this historic step and we should not be afraid of Greece.”

Rasim Musabekov, an independent analyst, also advised his government not to hold back on northern Cyprus.

“As for the Greeks repeating these steps towards Karabakh – they are doing it already,” said Musabekov. “Today the US government is giving financial help to the Karabakhi separatists, parliamentary deputies from France, Russia and Great Britain are flying there, big companies are investing there. So we should not be afraid of what has already been done.”

Armenpress news agency reported on July 21 that Arman Melikian, foreign minister of the unrecognised republic of Nagorny Karabakh, welcomed Greek Cypriot proposals to open a direct flights connection between Nicosia and Karabakh in response to the Baku-Ercan flight.

Tahir Tagizade, spokesman for the Azerbaijani foreign ministry, sought to play down controversy around the issue, insisting Baku also had good relations with the Greek Cypriots.

“The population of northern Cyprus suffers from economic isolation,” said Tagizade. “Azerbaijan hopes that the Turkish community of Cyprus, which supported the plan of the general secretary of the UN Kofi Annan, will benefit from an even-handed attitude by European states. And Azerbaijan is ready to give equal help to both the Turkish and Greek communities of Cyprus.”

Rufat Abbasov is a reporter with Reuters news agency in Baku.

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