On February 19, the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey held their fifth trilateral meeting, during which they agreed on the completion date for the construction of the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars (BTK) railway. The BTK railroad will eventually connect the three countries (Civil Georgia, February 19).
This project started back in 2007, and was initially supposed to have been completed by 2010. However, it has been marred by a number of problems: financial, political and geographic, which repeatedly caused delays in the construction (Amerikis Khma, October 20, 2015). The latest meeting postponed the completion date once again, this time to 2017.
The importance of the BTK transit project is difficult to underestimate. First of all, the railway project will be a huge geopolitical and economic boon for Turkey, as it will help Ankara extend its political and economic influence from the Black Sea region to the shores of Caspian Sea and even further into Central Asia, where Turkic-speaking nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are located.
Azerbaijan is also set to benefit greatly, acquiring a fast transportation link to its Turkic kin in the west. Moreover, by hosting a portion of the railway, Georgia will be gaining additional leverage as a transit country, which will certainly increase Tbilisi’s political significance in the region, not to mention bring economic benefits to this impoverished country.
And as for the whole of the South Caucasus, the railway project promises to bring the entire region closer to Europe and its 500-million-person market, making it much faster for the South Caucasus countries and their goods to reach the European continent.
On the other hand, this project represents everything that Russia opposes: it solidifies Turkey’s position in the region, strengthens Baku’s links with Ankara, and entrenches Georgia’s position as a regional transit country. In order to neutralize the BTK project, Moscow has tried to promote the alternative North-South railway (also referred to as the Sochi–Yerevan railway), which would run from Russia, through Georgia, to Armenia and eventually connect to Iran (Thearmenite.com, October 15, 2014). However, a section of the North-South Railway runs through the Russian-occupied separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia. Subsequently, talks about opening up the Abkhazian segment of the railway have gone nowhere. Tbilisi deems it impossible to allow the railway to become operational as long as Abkhazia remains under Russian occupation (see EDM, November 12, 2012; Georgiatoday.ge, August 27, 2015).
Moreover, there is some indirect indication that Moscow tried to kill the BTK project not long ago. Specifically, back in 2012, the newly elected prime minister of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who immediately after his ascent to power pursued a policy of rapprochement with Russia, expressed skepticism about the BTK. He stated, that the decision to build this railway was hasty, as it threatened Georgia’s Black Sea ports with decreased amounts of cargo (Tabula.ge, December 26, 2012). After a public outcry over his comments, Ivanishvili stressed his support for the project (News.ge, May 27, 2013). Yet, there is a possibility that, in fact, Moscow had pressured the new Georgian government to drop the railway project.
Russia’s satellite Armenia is also set to lose out by this project. The BTK railway will increase Yerevan’s regional isolation, as its arch-enemy Azerbaijan and Baku’s ally Turkey, both gain big from it—politically as well as economically. This was the key reason why Armenian-American lobbying groups were instrumental in pushing the United States House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee to ban any US government funding for the BTK project (Azatutyun.am, June 15, 2006). In response, Azerbaijan provided Georgia with a $200 million loan, with a 1 percent interest rate, in order to ensure the construction of the railway (trend.az, January 27, 2011).
Rather than geopolitics or protests from regional neighbors, the most recent postponement of the BTK project owes its reason to the construction companies’ inability to complete all the essential stages that would make the railway operational. Nevertheless, the Azerbaijani, Georgian and Turkish foreign ministers assured the public that work on all the sections of the railway were almost over and that the BTK will be ready in 2017 (Civil Georgia, February 19).
Similar deadlines were made in the past, too—and often with similar assertiveness. And yet, those promises were never delivered on. The latest trilateral meeting thus resembles the participating sides’ desperate attempt to show that the project is alive and that its completion is still at the top of their shared agenda.
Needless to say, the BTK railway will be completed sooner or later. It is highly unlikely that it will be discontinued. Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia have invested too much time and financial resources to abandon it now. Nevertheless, it is not clear when it will be finished. The new 2017 deadline can, and most likely will, turn out as illusory as the previous five or so deadlines did. On a positive note, however, the project’s participating sides can learn from their past mistakes to realize what has caused the completion of the project to drag on for so long. Those experiences may come handy, as the BTK railway will surely not be the last transportation project to be built in the strategically important South Caucasus.