Michael Cecire of the Foreign Policy Research Institute -
All is not well in the Black Sea region, as conflict and contingencies smoulder about its jagged circumference. Russian troops and their allies continue their pitched, if fitful, assaults in Ukraine; in Georgia, withstanding Russian provocations along and on its territory is a topic of fierce debate; the threat of renewed war between Azerbaijan and Armenia continues to be a frightening possibility, particularly amid the throes of prolonged economic pain; and Turkey has trained the bulk of its military might not against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or even Bashar al Assad’s kleptocratic Syrian regime, but the Kurds. Not a firewall, the Black Sea region has become more connective tissue between the Russian crusades along its peripheries and the pocket world war in Iraq and Syria.
Yet, amid the chaos, a secondary order is emerging. Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan are increasingly approaching regional challenges, security issues and their long-term development in a concerted, coordinated manner. Despite the Euro-Atlantic powers’ gradual withdrawal from the region over the past decade – or perhaps partially because of it – the three states have formed the makings of an increasingly coherent grouping with the potential to transform the fortunes for the entire region.
Partnership built on energy
In June 2012, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan met in the Turkish Black Sea city of Trabzon to sign a statement of trilateral cooperation in what came to be known as the “Trabzon Declaration”. The Trabzon Declaration largely fell beneath the international radar, but it gave diplomatic heft to an already robust array of geo-economic and strategic complementarity among the three neighbours. Highlighting already high levels of existing trilateral cooperation, the statement established a trilateral “Trabzon format” that began at the foreign ministerial level, but has since extended to defence and economy ministries, prime ministers, and presidents. The Trabzon Declaration may have originated as an expression of cooperation, but it has increasingly bound the three states’ power ministries into broad economic and political coordination.
Yet for all its significance, the Trabzon format is primarily an expression of pre-existing trilateral cooperation rather than its origin. In reality, Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan trilateralism has its roots in the 1990s. With the Caucasus racked by periodic conflict, it was not until the late 1990s that bilateral initiatives between the three countries began to assume the contours of a broader, macro perspective. The impetus, nudged on by Western partners, was a pipeline to ferry Caspian oil across the South Caucasus to Turkey and Western markets. This project would eventually come to be known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which became the first non-Russian controlled energy artery to Europe. BTC, though a watershed, was only the first. These infrastructure projects – BTC, the South Caucasus pipeline, the under-development Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, and the nearly launched Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway -- are stitching the three states into economic alignment and interdependence.
These energy corridors are the residues of trilateralism’s Euro-Atlantic origins. At its heart, BTC was the expression of Western desires to diversify the European energy mix away from Russia (and, to a lesser extent, Iran) by exploiting underdeveloped Caspian hydrocarbons. Though economically successful, BTC and the EU’s “Southern Gas Corridor” project were political endeavours from the very beginning. This was no less true between the three states. Turkey sought to use the Southern Gas Corridor to position itself as an energy hub and independent pole of power; Georgia saw the project as an economic boon and a way of easing its way into Euro-Atlantic structures; and Azerbaijan saw lucrative energy consumers and geopolitical partners.
Ties that bind
Today, an ever-burgeoning trilateral infrastructure of pipelines, railways and highways is increasingly fleshed with extensive trade, economic agreements, political coordination and, increasingly, security cooperation. Turkey and Azerbaijan are routinely Georgia’s top trade partners by volume; Georgia and Turkey register strongly in Azerbaijani foreign trade, particularly when you take non-oil/gas trade into account. Georgia and Azerbaijan are less well reflected in the Turkish economy – which dwarfs that of Georgia and even Azerbaijan, and is integrated with Europe through the EU Customs Union – but Turkey is routinely a leading source of foreign direct investment in the two Caucasus states.
Similarly, Turkish and Azerbaijani citizens are among the most frequent visitors to Georgia. Likewise, Georgians and Turkish citizens were the second and third most populous nationalities to enter Azerbaijan in 2014. Even in massive Turkey, Georgians were the fourth most frequently arriving nationality to Turkey in 2014 (Azerbaijan was 14th).
These numbers are products of steady integration and a generally liberalized system of regional movement and trade. Georgia and Turkey have visa- and passport-free travel for their citizens. Georgia and Azerbaijan also have a visa-free regime. Turkey allows Azerbaijanis to enter visa-free, while Azerbaijan issues a visa upon arrival for Turkish citizens entering Azerbaijan. Georgia has had free trade with Azerbaijan since 1996 and Turkey since 2008. Turkey and Azerbaijan enjoy close economic cooperation, but have yet to finalize their own free trade pact. However, regional leaders have vowed to consider a common trilateral approach to trade, and possibly even movement.
Defence is also increasingly a province of trilateral cooperation. Since 2012, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan have held regular joint military exercises with an emphasis on special operations capabilities and interoperability. In particular, joint forces exercises have oriented at protecting the common cabling of energy and transport infrastructure that the three states increasingly share. Georgia and Azerbaijan, with help from Turkey, reportedly also increasingly cooperate on developing their domestic arms manufacturing bases. And in May 2015, the meeting of the three countries’ defence leaders announced the formation of a trilateral military coordination working group, which is expected to begin working this autumn.
Trilateralism is already a reality and, it appears, has gradually transformed from being an expression of converging interests into a self-perpetuating grouping. Though Azerbaijan is fixated on regime stability, Turkey on its own domestic politics and raging conflict in Syria, and Georgia on Russia and Euro-Atlantic integration, the bonds of trilateralism have only continued to progress. And, according to several senior officials from the region, enthusiasm among each government remains enduring.
Trilateralism’s end state is an open question, however. Speaking to local leadership, it remains unclear just how high a ceiling the entente has to go. A very senior Georgian government official told me that Georgia’s relationships with Turkey and Azerbaijan had enormous potential, but expressed concerns that Turkish and particularly Azerbaijani geopolitical drift away from the West could pose a challenge to the growth of long-term cooperation.
Relatedly, Turkey’s latent aspirations to regional leadership remain intact, but Ankara’s willingness to take on a more prominent role as a security manager in the South Caucasus is doubtful. In a way, Turkey’s reported support for Georgian membership into Nato may represent Ankara’s desire to play regional leader while spreading the risk of Georgia’s security situation to the rest of the Atlantic alliance. Yet, given that Turkey already has a mutual defence pact with Azerbaijan, neither it is completely inconceivable that Ankara would be open to a similar arrangement with Tbilisi if Georgia accedes to Nato, enters into another international security arrangement (such as a bilateral treaty with the US), or the strategic temperature is seen to have diminished to a more tolerable level.
In the shorter term, other possibilities loom. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, set to go into operation later this year, will fill the last gap in the world’s only overland alternative to the Trans-Siberian railway. In turn, this will be a key component in China’s high-stakes New Silk Road initiative, which it hopes to use to invigorate trans-Eurasian trade and secure its long-term economic viability. Should Chinese activity and investment in the region reach a critical mass, as it appears to be heading, the result could also alter the mechanics of inter-state power. A more active and present China could serve as a possible firewall against Russian adventurism, given Moscow’s growing reliance on Beijing for its economic and diplomatic goodwill.
And while pipeline security-focused trilateral military drills are the priority now, a future joint battalion or rapid reaction force should not be seen as out of the question. If anything, it may even be a logical next step, even if only narrowly focused on infrastructure protection at first. And at minimum, continued collaboration on domestic manufacturing is likely to increase between the three neighbouring states. Some of the more thoughtful discussions about trilateral integration envision a Visegrad Group-type format to coordinate policies and cooperate across a variety of sectors.
By their sheer proximity, a certain level of collaboration and shared interests between the three states would be expected. But the escalating volume of that cooperation and the reported enthusiasm for the trilateral project among regional leaders points to the makings of a mutually interdependent and durable alignment. If trends hold, trilateralism could be a stabilizing force in a region that seems perennially beset by conflict, and a means of elevating the region from strategic backwater to strategic connector.
Michael Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Project on Democratic Transitions and Black Sea regional analyst. Follow him on @mhikaric
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