Photo by Azerbaijani Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Over the past several weeks geopolitical experts have been talking a lot about what the surprise U.S. drone attack on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force, on Jan. 3 means for the Middle East and relations between the major powers. What has received considerably less attention, however, is what Soleimani’s killing means for the South Caucasus, a region whose small size belies its strategic importance.
Located at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the South Caucasus is a major energy supplier and an increasingly important arena for competition between regional powers, like Turkey and Iran, and great powers, like the U.S. and Russia.
Washington believed that taking out Soleimani would restore the leverage it had lost to Iran and Russia’s growing role in the region. Although U.S. sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy, sparking anti-government demonstrations, Russia, China, much of Europe, and even many American political leaders have railed against the Soleimani strike. Continue reading
United States National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Azerbaijan on October 24, and held meetings with President Ilham Aliyev and other high-level state officials. Bolton appeared in Baku immediately following his visit to Moscow (Trend.az, October 24). The US National Security Advisor’s Russian agenda and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin suggested that Washington will not be rekindling relations with Moscow under the current circumstances.
Bolton’s ensuing trip to the South Caucasus included stops not only in Azerbaijan but also Armenia and Georgia. As the highest US official from the Donald Trump administration to come to the region since Vice President Michael Pence’s visit to Tbilisi last year (Whitehouse.gov, August 1, 2017), Bolton’s three-country tour raised questions of whether the White House is interested in more seriously reengaging the region, which had been neglected under the previous US administration. During Barrack Obama’s presidency, US influence in the South Caucasus had declined as the White House paid more attention to bilateral relations with Russia. Continue reading
Photo Credit: Russia Business Today
On August 16, the Azerbaijani MP and head of the Azerbaijan-Russia interparliamentary group Ali Huseynli told local media that “It would be advisable to consider Azerbaijan’s participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization” (CSTO). The sensational statement triggered a public discussion on Azerbaijan’s possible membership in the Russia-led CSTO and its consequences for the region. While some state officials described this prospect as a logical extension of Baku’s cooperation with Moscow, others strictly opposed the idea, stating that it would pose dangerous challenges to the country.
BACKGROUND: Russia’s various political and military initiatives have constituted important tools for regaining influence across Eurasia. However, the Russian-led regional groupings, including the CSTO, are inconvenient alliances. The CSTO unites a number of former Soviet republics including Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus (and previously Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan) under the umbrella of defense cooperation against internal and external threats such as international terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime. Whereas Russia has sought to exert leverage in the former Soviet republics via the CSTO, the organization has not become a powerful tool in this respect. In order to boost the CSTO’s role, Moscow seeks additional members including Azerbaijan, with its economic potential and rich hydrocarbon resources. Continue reading
In an interview, last month (August 16) with the media outlet Azeri Daily, Azerbaijani member of parliament and the head of the Azerbaijan-Russia inter-parliamentary group, Ali Huseynli, suggested that considering the changed geopolitical conditions in the South Caucasus, “it would be possible [he later also used the word ‘advisable’] to consider Azerbaijan’s participation in the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization]” (Azeri Daily, August 16). His sensational statement triggered a heated public discussion domestically and abroad about Azerbaijan potentially joining the Russian-led military bloc.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization—or “Eurasian NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]” as it has sometimes been referred to in the West—brings together a number of former Soviet republics, including Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus (formerly also Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan). The military bloc purportedly strives to develop closer intra-regional defense cooperation against internal and external threats like international terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime and similar threats. However, the organization also serves to maintain Russia’s political-military influence over the post-Soviet space (Janusz Bugajski and Margarita Assenova, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, The Jamestown Foundation, 2016). Continue reading
The Azerbaijani State Oil Company (SOCAR) announced, on July 27, the formation of a new corporate entity that will oversee the future development of the Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline (IAP) project. The proposed pipeline is designed to deliver Azerbaijani natural gas to Europe—namely to the Balkan region. According to Murad Heydarov, the head of the subsidiary SOCAR Balkan, the announced firm will be set up by the end of this year (AzerNews, Trend, July 27). Although, SOCAR is not a stakeholder in the IAP project, it acts as a technical consultant and manages the future design of the pipeline between the Albanian cities of Fier and Vlora. This project will represent the first time that SOCAR will undertake engineering services in the Western Balkans. Continue reading
Southern Gas Corridor Route
On May 29, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev officially inaugurated the first phase of the long-awaited flagship project Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), through which Caspian natural gas from the Shah-Deniz II field will be transported to Europe. The new project consists of several pipeline networks that pass through Georgia and Turkey (via the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, TANAP) and further through Greece, Albania and Italy (via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, TAP). As Shah Deniz Stage 2 is implemented, gas production will increase from 9 to 25 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year.
BACKGROUND: A decade ago, the European Commission issued its Energy and Solidarity Action Plan, which set a clear target to help Eastern European countries boost and diversify their gas imports. The Southern Gas Corridor project is the backbone of this strategy to decrease Europe’s dependency on gas imports from Russia substantially. This has been a growing concern for policymakers ever since a conflict between Gazprom and the Ukrainian government interrupted supplies in the winter of 2006. Continue reading
Photo Credit: EADily Agency
On October 30, 2017, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, along with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Georgia’s Prime-minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev, and Uzbekistan’s Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov attended the opening ceremony of the long-delayed Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway. “The opening of the railway is of historic and strategic significance,” Aliyev said at the ceremony in the Caspian port city of Alat, south of Baku, to mark the departure of the first trains. In fact, the opening of the new railway provides an alternative route to existing rail services carrying goods from Asia to Europe.
BACKGROUND: The BTK railway, totaling 826 kilometers in length, is intended to complete a transport corridor linking Azerbaijan to Turkey (and thereby linking Central Asia and China to Europe) by rail. The railway is constructed on the basis of a Georgian-Azerbaijani-Turkish intergovernmental agreement. At the initial stage, it will have a capacity of one million passengers and 6.5 million tons of cargo per year, projected to reach 17 million tons of cargo per year by 2023. Starting in Baku, the trains will stop in Tbilisi, pass through gauge-changing facilities in Akhalkalaki, and terminate in north-east Turkey. Continue reading