The former Soviet space has seen a number of political and economic alliances. Some of them, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), work only nominally; the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, another regional cooperation endeavor, resurfaced only recently.
In Central Asia, any deep cooperation agreements between the region’s countries largely failed in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, it is in the South Caucasus—where we have a perennial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, multiple breakaway territories and varied religious settings—where the Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgia cooperation, or the trilateral cooperation as it is referred to, continues to be regarded as strong. Moreover, over the past several years, since the trilateral cooperation was introduced in May 2012 in the Georgian city of Batumi, the engagement between the three countries has even increased.
The countries initially pledged to deepen defence ties. And indeed, their defence cooperation increased and we witnessed numerous joint military exercises and the sharing of intelligence between the three militaries. What’s more, the countries also cooperate with exchanges of military staff and military expertise.
The last meeting between the three respective defence ministers took place on May 25 last year in Batumi. The enduring cooperation was tested by overshadowing developments around Georgia. The government of that country has been criticised both internally and internationally for shutting doors to Azerbaijani dissidents and for the arresting of persons wanted by Turkey.
Three nations that need each other
But the durability of the strategic partnership takes precedence as the three countries need each other. Military cooperation, although not ambitious enough to cause anxiety in Moscow, along with railways and pipelines, represents a far greater sticking point for the countries than the arresting of dissidents or other figures.
Considering how shaky and fast-moving the regional political and security landscape in the South Caucasus and the Black Sea is, the cooperation between the trio is certainly important. The trilateral alliance is altogether noteworthy as it consists of Nato member and EU-hopeful Turkey, EU/Nato-oriented Georgia, and Azerbaijan, which up until now has avoided joining any large economic or military alliances.
The format has even endured changes of governments. For instance, in Georgia, the United National Movement was replaced by Georgian Dream, while Turkey in the past few years has moved from close cooperation with Moscow to adversary and back again.
However, despite the three countries’ evidently divergent strategic paths, the basis for trilateral cooperation has only increased. Each country of the three needs the others. Turkey wants a more stable Georgia with deeper economic and energy relations, while Azerbaijan, in light of uncertainties regarding breakaway region Nagorno-Karabakh, needs Turkey’s backing. Georgia, under pressure from Russia and, given that it is located between its two fellow members of the cooperation, dependent on transit, in turn needs both Turkey and Azerbaijan. The two countries are Tbilisi’s biggest trade partners and investment sources.
Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway launch underlines the geopolitical perspective
The celebrations on the establishment of the Turkish Republic coincided with another important event which was taking place last October 30 in Azerbaijani capital Baku. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev hosted his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvrikashvili at a ceremony to launch the first train on the newly built Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway stretching from the Caspian Sea port of Alat, south of Baku, to the city of Kars in eastern Turkey. The ceremony was also attended by the prime ministers of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
The project will play an important role in the geopolitics of the region as it will not only increase connectivity in the South Caucasus, it could potentially also embolden the land-locked Central Asian states in thinking about increasing their gas and oil exports to European markets. The project opens a rail corridor connecting Central Asia with the European markets, through the South Caucasus region. This is also reflected in the outlined intentions behind the construction of the port at Alat, one of the largest ports in the Caspian Sea region. It was specifically built to provide connections to Central Asia.
An additional layer of geopolitical importance is added to the project when it is seen within the context of the Chinese One Belt, One Road transport and trade infrastructure initiative. The 826-kilometre railway will enable the delivery of cargo between China and Europe with a haulage duration of approximately two weeks. Up to eight million tonnes of cargo may be carried on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway by 2025.
Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan have not aligned because of any common threat. Nevertheless, they all feel Russian pressure on various fronts from Syria to Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Samachablo to Nagorno-Karabakh. Even in Baku, the scepticism around Russia grows, with Moscow last year abolishing the All-Russian Azerbaijan Congress.
The trilateral cooperation in fact seems to be based on mutual interests and other geopolitical challenges. The countries are less concerned with different religions, foreign policy vectors, and so forth. All three see how interdependent they are and there are clear imperatives (internal problems, foreign pressure) to increase the cooperation within the format. In other words, energy and transport infrastructure tying the three states, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars pipeline, take precedence.
And this geopolitical thinking, in fact, has been the key to the trilateralism’s continued relevance. True, the countries still lack a common agenda on how to further develop the military cooperation, and there are not yet any concrete mechanisms on how to commonly deal with foreign policy challenges, but the format nevertheless has proved to be a longlasting one. The countries are clever in that in order not to provoke Russia they do not strike a posture of creating a definite military alliance; rather they are using the trilateral format to stress the importance of the economic and energy cooperation, that is only to be potentially backed if/when necessary by deeper military cooperation.
Emil Avdaliani teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University. He has worked for various international consulting companies and currently publishes articles focused on military and political developments across the Eurasian continent.