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A new partnership for co-operation in the Black Sea

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An economic and strategic partnership between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey is ramping up, and turning to the West.

Michael Cecire
18 May 2015

In December 2014, the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey met in the eastern Turkish city of Kars for the fourth high-level, tripartite meeting in just over two years. Amid raging conflicts in Ukraine to the north and Syria to the south, as well as steady news of troubles at home, the Kars meeting might appear unexceptional – even unimportant – in comparison. 

But this meeting underscored a fast-moving and increasingly relevant trilateral partnership, which may be bucking the doom and gloom in the Black Sea region. 

Out of the ashes 

Scarcely believable now, but four years ago Turkey was being lauded internationally for its red-hot economy, an enviable model of Islamic democracy, and its perceived diplomatic nous. Then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s 'Zero Problems' slogan was an expression of accomplishment rather than irony, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had a hard-won international reputation for being effective, if sometimes temperamental, stewards. 

Things are different now. The recently-lifted siege of Kobane by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – and the famously passive regard paid by nearby Turkish forces – encapsulates how the Turkish grand strategy has tangled and cancelled itself out. More broadly, the Middle East, previously the jewel in the 'Zero Problems' crown, now poses the most urgent threat to Turkish security.

Across the Anatolian steppe, though, and over the lesser Caucasus mountains, lies Georgia, which has problems of its own. As Russian forces and their proxies dig in on 20% of its territory and bear down on Ukraine across the Black Sea, Tbilisi's friends in the West have opted for retrenchment rather than confrontation. They are effectively acceding to the spheres of influence, which they rhetorically reject and Moscow demands. Georgia, a cultural cradle of Europe, finds itself on the wrong side of a familiar looking geopolitical barrier. Tbilisi chose the West, but the doors to the Euro-Atlantic community look as closed as ever. 

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Ahmet Davutoğlu's popular book Strategic Depth (2001) lauds a new civilisation based on Islam. (c) Wikimedia Commons.

To the east, Azerbaijan observes closely as Ukraine burns, seeing some of its greatest fears confirmed. Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine following February 2014, not to mention the annexation of Crimea, has been duly noted – as is Western reluctance to do little more than apply an escalating scale of sanctions.

Meanwhile, the EuroMaidan protests that toppled Ukraine's kleptocratic ex-President Viktor Yanukovych seem as much a (if not a greater) danger to Baku's heavy-handed regime as Russian adventurism. And next door, Georgia’s unrequited Western affections, and perennial security vulnerabilities, are glaring.

But proximity and strategic confusion are not all that Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan have in common. The growth of geopolitical uncertainty abroad is increasing the value of stability close to home. Between the three states, a thickening spine of pipelines, trade routes, and strategic infrastructure is helping develop economic interdependency.

And strategic necessity is forging increasingly tight political – and increasingly security-oriented – relations. From the rising chaos of the region, the three countries are creating a semblance of order among themselves – and the makings of a potentially major strategic alignment. 

Strategic depth

In June 2012, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan met in the Black Sea city of Trabzon to sign what has come to be known as the Trabzon Declaration. The declaration, though it presaged no major co-operative projects, served to codify an emerging trilateral alignment.

Far from a one-off conversation, the summit was the first in what has become a recurring consultative and coordinating format. Since 2012, the 'Trabzon Three' have met at least once a year, and their meetings have bred other trilateral gatherings at multiple cabinet-level positions. 

Though the Trabzon format launched in 2012, the roots of trilateralism go back much further. 'Strategic Depth,' the AKP's foreign policy doctrine, was based on the notion that a reservoir of latent soft power could be drawn from regions, mostly but not entirely on its periphery, with civilizational, cultural, or historical affinities to Turkey. This could be cultivated towards feeding Turkey's development not only as a leading economy, but potentially as an independent pole of global power in its own right.

Unsurprisingly, those regions with the richest legacies of historical exchange with Turkey tended to be coterminous with the borders of the late Ottoman Empire, fueling accusation that the Islamist AKP was engaging in 'neo-Ottomanism'. 

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Trilateral summit between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey in Tbilisi, May 2014. (c) President.az.

That said, this policy has been most successful not in former Ottoman tributaries with Sunni Muslim populations, but rather the Balkans and the Caucasus, regions with more secular – or even non-Islamic – traditions.

In the Caucasus, trilateralism has emerged only in part to this policy. Friendly trade and political relations from Ankara has made good Turkish ties a staple of Georgian foreign policy, regardless of partisan interests. And Turkey's close relationship with Azerbaijan has been the foundation upon which the trilateral enterprise rests.

'Strategic Depth' may have been the theoretical impetus behind trilateralism, but it was Azerbaijani hydrocarbons (first oil, now gas) that has been the motivating driver. With few cheap, easily-obtainable energy resources of its own, Turkey saw the Caspian oil boom as a chance not only to diversify energy sources, but to help reposition Turkey as a 'hub' for hydrocarbons from Russia, the Caspian, the Middle East, and someday Central Asia. Azerbaijan, itself seeking diversified markets, hoped to push its products to lucrative Western markets without relying on fickle Russian infrastructure (and often with strings attached). The result of this alignment of interests, along with some cheerleading from Washington in the late 1990s, was the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. 

Georgia, ravaged by post-communist economic depression and an epidemic of civil wars, spent much of the 1990s rebuilding its statehood. The BTC project, which required Georgian territory for transit, offered Tbilisi not only an opportunity for economic development, but to raise the country's geopolitical profile. And given the tripartite character of the BTC enterprise, the pipeline's development sparked increased coordination and economic agreements between the three countries. Today, BTC is only one of several pipelines ferrying Caspian energy across the South Caucasus: the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline, the Baku-Supsa pipeline, and the under-development Trans-Anatolian Pipeline.

The most ambitious project yet, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway, due to be completed in late 2015, will ferry an estimated 15m tonnes of cargo and 3m passengers annually at full capacity. An alternative to the Trans-Siberian railway, BTK is expected to help facilitate increased trade flows as well as provide more flexible means to transport Caspian energy to Europe – an enticing proposition given Moscow's use of energy as a strategic cudgel.

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Far on Turkey's eastern border, Kars was previously connected to Tbilisi by rail via Gyumri. (c) WikiMedia Commons / Uspn.

Such infrastructure projects have woven Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan into economic interdependency. Trilateral economic hardware is now accompanied by complementary software: Turkey and Georgia signed a free trade agreement in 2007, a visa-free regime in 2009, and a passport-free zone in 2011; Turkey and Azerbaijan finalised a mutual defence pact in 2010; and Georgia and Azerbaijan have enjoyed visa-free movement since 1993, and free trade since 1996.

According to Abdullah Gul, President of Turkey from 2007 until 2014, the construction of the BTK railway is likely to be boosted by a joint economic space – a logical next step.

Turkey's ascendance

Economics may have been the original impetus for trilateralism, but the three-state enterprise has already shown signs of being something much more. Politically, trilateralism has served as a carrier for the Euro-Atlantic space. Though the frontiers of the EU and NATO end at Turkey's borders with Europe and Georgia, this union faces the West. 

This orientation is, in part, a consequence of the westward flow of Caspian hydrocarbons (the founding justification for trilateralism), as well as the strategic orientation of each of the three states. For Turkey, which has advocated the eastward expansion of NATO into neighboring Georgia, the European market (Turkey is in customs union with the EU) and NATO are pillars of its economic dynamism and regional clout. For Georgia, Euro-Atlantic aspirations may play an even more pronounced role in its foreign policymaking than Turkey. And Azerbaijan may be officially agnostic towards joining Euro-Atlantic structures, but it clearly depends on Western co-operation as a key element of its official 'multi-vectored' foreign policy.

But while trilateralism may be an expression of different regional postures towards the Euro-Atlantic space, it is also a reaction to its inherent limitations. Stiff internal European resistance to Turkey's EU membership bid (seemingly in ignorance of Turkish reforms) has prompted Ankara to seek alternative arrangements. Trilateralism, Strategic Depth, as well as periodic flirtations with the Russian-led Eurasian Union are best understood within this context

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Azerbaijan`s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov meets Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Baku, February 2015.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the trilateral project would move into the realm of security co-operation. Like the economic side, co-operation began on an ad hoc, bilateral basis but gradually expanded in scope and ambition. Today, the three states cooperate on a variety of security matters: Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan coordinate increasingly closely on indigenous defence manufacturing; in 2012, the Trabzon Three held their first trilateral military exercises, which have become regular events; and and the three states' defence ministers met in 2014 and 2015 to boost cooperation, including plans for regular joint security drills.

The latter initiative, which has been under development for a couple of years, might be regarded the first step towards a more integrated security arrangement between the three neighbours. Broadly considered, security co-operation makes sense if these countries are going to provide comprehensive and standard-enforced security for the pipelines, railway, and support infrastructure which multiply region’s strategic value. At the same time, the initiative might also be considered the first step in a genuine military partnership. Down the line, should relations continue their upward trajectory, a trilateral rapid reaction battalion is not an impossible outcome. 

The increasing closeness of the three states' military ties points to Turkey's more proactive security role. After all, Turkey is a dominant local military power and the only state with a credible chance of challenging Russian regional primacy. The fact that Ankara has agreed to align with Azerbaijan and Georgia, which both have complicated relations with Russia, speaks of its desire to play a more central role in the Black Sea region. 

Extrapolating current trends, trilateralism could become a vehicle for reinvigorated Turkish ascendancy and an increasingly prosperous and stable South Caucasus.

Coming undone?

Trilateralism shows great promise, but challenges remain. Hopes for the trilateral grouping to act as a pro-Ankara bloc are complicated by inherent fragilities in the three countries’ relations. Though economic trilateralism is already a reality, and the political-security dimension seems to be catching up, the relations between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan resemble more of a tripartite co-operation club than a Turkey-led alliance in embryo.

For all of the three states' strategic convergences, their respective geopolitical orientations continue to be unaligned. 'Strategic Depth' may be the founding blueprint for the AKP's foreign policy agenda, but domestic concerns after the 2013 Gezi protests and the potential for a fresh Kurdish conflict in the wake of Kobane have subordinated 'Strategic Depth' to more of a talking point than a reflection of grand strategy.

Similarly, while Turkey may appear to have pretensions to regional leadership, its failures in the Middle East and virtual acquiescence towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine (and annexation of Crimea) suggest there are deep-seated reservations in Ankara about seriously assuming the role of regional security manager, especially contra Russia. This sense may have only strengthened following Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Turkey.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Georgia have their own interests to consider. Azerbaijan, though dependent on the West for its markets and support for resolving Nagorno-Karabakh in its favour, has also prioritised domestic issues: namely, the preservation of the incumbent regime and repression against actors it sees as vectors of instability, including pro-democracy activists and Western NGOs. Over the past year, Baku has arguably drifted further from the West and, almost counter-intuitively, now seems more likely to associate with, if not outright join, the Russia-led Eurasian Union than sign an association agreement with the European Union, much less consider a NATO membership bid.

Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is commonly described as 'multi-vectored', and not incorrectly. However, the 'multi-vector' foreign policy strategies Baku employs might be considered pro-Russian in many other contexts.

This is especially true compared to neighbouring Georgia, where Euro-Atlantic integration is largely a foreign policy goal. And yet, the current Georgian Dream government has been accused (unconvincingly) of sliding towards Moscow for seeking to step back from the confrontational posture of the previous government. However, Western integration remains the overriding foreign policy goal in Tbilisi, which arguably has even greater prominence in elite Georgian political discourse than the more fundamental questions of national sovereignty and security that Euro-Atlantic integration is assumed to address.

Difficulties, challenges

Differing political calculations also complicate the trilateral alignment. However, these are differences that are not irreconcilable in the medium- or long-term. And the evolutionary pace of trilateralism’s development makes the question of a genuine alliance moot in the more immediate horizon.

At the same time, an alliance is not necessarily the only positive destination for trilateralism. The project, even in its nascent form, may already be considered a success and would only be even more so as a primarily economic club. Likewise, a more workable future for the entente may be something in the mold of the Cenral European Visegrad Group, which encourages and prioritises security co-operation but falls well short of a regional alliance.

Either way, trilateralism is already re-making the strategic landscape in the South Caucasus region to largely positive effect. As its economic momentum translates into political co-operation, questions over intentions and ends are certain to be raised by the likes of the West, Russia, Armenia and Iran.

But with time – and constructive Western input – the Trabzon Three can develop as a force for regional stability and, potentially, as a carrier for Euro-Atlantic values alongside energy and goods.

Standfirst image: Trilateral summit of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey in Tbilisi, May 2014. (c) President.az.

Image three: Turkish and Azeri Foreign Ministers meet in Baku, February 2015. (c) Aziz Karimov / Demotix.

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