Against the backdrop of the events in Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey have agreed to cooperate more closely in economic, transport and energy safety spheres.
The first tripartite summit of the presidents of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey took place in Tbilisi on May 6 (Civil Georgia, May 6). Until then, regular meetings involving all three of these neighboring states had never reached higher than the foreign minister level. The tripartite summit had been agreed upon earlier, during Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s visits to Baku and Ankara—his first two trips abroad after being elected to the presidency. The enhanced, trilateral presidential format appears designed for Tbilisi, Baku and Ankara to more effectively coordinate their governments’ response to the tense situation coming out of the Ukrainian crisis (see EDM, March 11; vestikavkaza.ru, February 19).
The May 6 tripartite summit did not explicitly touch upon hard security issues and military cooperation. However, it must be noted that the concept of security in the modern world is not limited to just the military component, but embraces many other aspects of inter-governmental cooperation, including energy and communications. Trilateral cooperation among Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey in these fields has already been highly productive. The main projects implemented by the three partners have included the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway (under construction), the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, as well as the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline (also known as the South Caucasus Pipeline). Furthermore, the strategically important highway connecting Turkey and Azerbaijan runs across the territory of Georgia.
Once the BTK railroad is completed, its strategic importance will be further elevated with the completion of a railway tunnel under the Bosporus Strait, which will create an uninterrupted railway corridor connecting Azerbaijan to Europe (see EDM, October 30, 2013; trend.az, February 22). This project is of enormous importance not only to the three neighboring countries, but also to Central Asia because it would provide these land-locked states with an alternative route to global markets for their goods that does not pass through Iran or Russia.
Turkey is the largest foreign trade partner for both Georgia and Azerbaijan (http://www.mfa.gov.tr/relations-between-turkey-and-georgia.en.mfa), and the citizens of both of these post-Soviet countries can visit Turkey without visas. For Georgians it is sufficient to have an electronic ID card to cross the Turkish border (http://www.aa.com.tr/en/news/11288–turkey-georgia-passages-begin-by-id-cards). Such a high level of cooperation required confirmation at the political level, which has motivated the leaderships of all three countries.
“This [May 6] summit [in Tbilisi] will have an impact not only on the citizens of Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, but […] the millions of people living beyond the region will benefit from it [as well], particularly in Europe and Asia,” President Margvelashvili said at a joint press conference. Moreover, the Georgian head of state did not rule out the possibility that the tripartite summit format may be expanded to include the participation of other countries in the region. President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev emphasized that the significance of the three countries’ cooperation surpasses the limits of their regional interests: “Our cooperation is based on common interests. At the same time, the joint projects that we are implementing have gone beyond the regional boundaries and become global. Thus, the summit itself is a very significant international event,” Aliyev stated (http://agenda.ge/news/13672/eng).
According to the president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, “the geographic cooperation between the three countries has created a great center of attraction in the Southern Caucasus.” Gul confirmed that besides the three neighbors’ already-implemented projects, there are also others that could potentially change the geo-economic and geopolitical map of that region. “There are other huge projects being carried out in this area, including huge viaducts and tunnels. [The] TANAP [Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline] project will also be completed soon and underscore the importance of coordination between the three countries,” the Turkish head of state said (http://www.byegm.gov.tr/english/agenda/turkey-georgia-azerbaijan-trilateral-summit/59217).
Having reiterated Turkey’s support for the territorial integrity of Georgia and Azerbaijan, President Gul expressed the common position of the three countries toward the events in Ukraine: “We agree that the crisis in Ukraine affects security and stability in our region. It is crucial that the crisis reaches a political resolution within the framework of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and international law,” Gul stated (http://www.byegm.gov.tr/english/agenda/turkey-georgia-azerbaijan-trilateral-summit/59217).
An anonymous source in the Chancellery of the Government of Georgia told Jamestown that, several months from now, the three countries would adopt a joint declaration, which would, in part, mention military issues. This next summit is likely to take place in Baku. However, Tbilisi, Baku and Ankara are not considering establishing an explicit, trilateral military alliance, “because Azerbaijan has a conflict with Armenia, Georgia is in conflict with Russia, and Turkey is trying to have balanced relations with Moscow,” the source in the Georgian government noted (Author’s interview, May 9).
At the same time, Iosif Tsintsadze, the Rector of the Diplomatic Academy of Georgia, told Jamestown that “in the modern world, a lot depends on transportation and energy security; so close cooperation in these spheres already indicates that a strategic union is in place, even if it has not been formalized—[much like the] Triple Entente or other military-political unions in the past” (Author’s interview, May 9).
Under its present leadership and under all previous regimes, Turkey has advocated Georgia’s admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), although this support has not been sufficient to achieve Tbilisi’s membership or a formal invitation to the Alliance. Nevertheless, as an influential country in its neighborhood, Turkey still remains an important factor in regional power calculations (http://www.turkishweekly.net/news/138708/minister-turkey-will-further-help-georgia-integrate-into-nato-.html).
“Turkey is the most important foreign partner of Georgia. Turkey has always supported the territorial integrity of our country and took into consideration our interests in Abkhazia, even though there is a large diaspora of Abkhazians that live in Turkey,” David Avalishvili, an analyst with the news agency GHN, told Jamestown in a May 9 interview. “The three-way format of cooperation strengthens the positive trends […] because it is obvious that the fundamental interests of the three states entirely coincide. The utility of cooperation in the past 20 years has been evident, in contrast to the unhappy experience of attempts to build normal relations with Russia,” Avalishivili argued. And now, with the continuing crisis in Ukraine, the factors contributing to ever closer trilateral ties are only going to strengthen.