Azerbaijan-Turkey Travel Agreement: What it Means
Relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey have historically been strong, with the two often referred to as “one nation, two states”. Close linguistic, cultural, and economic ties served as a backbone for the December 2020 agreement to allow travelers to move between the two countries without having to carry a passport. The agreement follows February 2020 discussions that established a visa free travel regime. Under the previous agreement, Azerbaijani and Turkish citizens were permitted mutual travel without being required to obtain a visa if their stay was under 90 days. The December agreement removes the passport requirement entirely and allows Azerbaijani and Turkish citizens to freely travel between the two countries using only an identity card. While Turkey has inked a similar arrangement with Ukraine, it is the first country to enjoy a passport-free regime with Azerbaijan. The new agreement aligns with the commitment of both countries to sustain positive bilateral engagement and facilitate collaboration in multiple key sectors, such as energy, trade, and tourism.
The Azerbaijani-Turkish partnership is a multifaceted bilateral relationship that is rooted in deep cultural and historical ties. As it collapsed and morphed into Turkey, the Ottoman Empire was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1918 and Turkey itself was the first country to recognize its restoration following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly, 71 percent of Turkish people responded that Azerbaijan was Turkey’s closest “friend”. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s standing among Turkish people has grown in the past decade, evinced by 59 percent of respondents saying that Turkey should cooperate more with Azerbaijan in implementing its foreign policy. The natural partnership is also displayed in where students choose to attend university. About 15,500 Azerbaijani students chose to study at Turkish universities in the 2017-2018 academic year, making up one-tenth of Azerbaijan’s total student population. Likewise, a large proportion of international students enrolled in Azerbaijani universities are from Turkey. The increasing popularity of the Turkish language, already closely related to Azeri, has also been observed among Azerbaijani schoolchildren. The close partnership between the two countries can precipitate track two diplomacy programs and propel bilateral energy and tourism programs to success.
The elimination of the passport requirement for Azerbaijani and Turkish citizens will likely result in larger flows of tourists in both directions. In January 2020, 10.6 percent of Azerbaijan’s 226,000 foreign visitors were Turkish citizens. Similarly, over 900,000 Azerbaijani citizens visited Turkey in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly disrupted the tourism sectors in both Azerbaijan and Turkey. For instance, in May 2020, only 1,154 Azerbaijani citizens visited Turkey, a 98.01 percent drop compared to the same month last year. Eliminating the need for citizens to carry a passport during their travels could incentivize larger numbers of tourists to visit in an effort to revive, and expand, pre-pandemic levels of tourists.
Trade between Azerbaijan and Turkey grew substantially in the past decade. Turkey has become Azerbaijan’s second largest import and export partner and is the third fastest growing trade partner for Azerbaijan. Close trade relations continue to link the two countries economically and are a key element to positive bilateral relations. Azerbaijan’s vast hydrocarbon reserves contribute to its dependable trade partnership with Turkey. Several oil and natural gas pipelines originating in Azerbaijan rely on Turkey to transport the resources to markets in Europe. For example, the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan Pipeline and the South Caucasus Pipeline cut through Turkey to gain access to Europe or the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, the completion of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) after four years of construction further cements Turkey’s role as a critical transit corridor, as well as a consumer, for Caspian gas. The 545.5 mile long pipeline will transport natural gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field to Southern Italy via Turkey and the Adriatic Sea. Turkey is expected to be one of the largest ten global economies by 2023 and its rapidly increasing demand for energy ties it to Azerbaijan’s immense hydrocarbon reserves.
Azerbaijan and Turkey enjoy positive bilateral relations due to their closely bound cultures, histories, and economies. The Azerbaijan-Turkey relationship can support the two countries in recovering from the long-lasting economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, their relationship can help sponsor critical energy infrastructure projects and promote cultural exchanges to refurbish the tourism sectors of both countries. As Turkey’s profile as a regional powerbroker rises and its economic and military muscle around the Middle East and South Caucasus becomes more clear, Azerbaijan is in pole position to benefit, thanks to the robust cultural and economic relationship the two share.