Searching for the right formula for South Caucasus regional co-operation

President Erdogan’s initiative for a 3 + 3 regional co-operation format in the South Caucasus offers the possibility of opening up the region through an extensive network of land corridors. Not everyone has welcomed the initiative, but the prospect of turning a fragile region into a beacon of stability after a long period of instability and violence is a worthy aspiration, argues Fuad Shahbazov in this op-ed for

The second Karabakh war has shifted the geopolitical and geo-economic realities in the South Caucasus region, particularly heightening the possibility of competition over the region’s transport corridors. The Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement signed on 10 November brings with it the possibility of opening a number of transit routes, which have been closed for almost 30 years. In the aftermath of the Armenian forces’ devastating defeat in the 44-day war, the idea of regional co-operation becomes increasingly important.

Since the end of hostilities, certain states in the region – Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Russia – are now more interested in enhancing regional connectivity by promoting new co-operation formats. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed a new 3+3 regional format with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Turkey, and Russia, aimed at enhancing intraregional co-operation and possibly supplanting the West as a regional actor. Unsurprisingly therefore, Georgia, as a Euro-Atlantic aspirant, has refused to take part citing Russia’s involvement. According to President Erdogan, however, the new co-operation format ‘would provide a win-win opportunity for all sides, including Armenia, which could use the platform as a first positive step toward establishing bilateral relations with Turkey’. Unlike Georgia, Russia and Iran have expressed positivity towards the proposal, as it vastly limits the influence of external actors, such as the OSCE, the EU, and the US in the South Caucasus region.

The new co-operation format envisages constructing a new railway and highway connections, including the rebuilding of pre-existing but abandoned routes from the Soviet era. As a result, landlocked Armenia would be able to join regional transit projects after being isolated for nearly three decades. In addition, with the new Nakhchivan corridor linking Baku with Ankara via Armenia, Azerbaijan will have the opportunity to increase its role as an important transit hub for global markets. The Nakhchivan corridor will be about 340 km shorter than the current route, which will significantly decrease transportation costs.

Such a co-operation format would benefit not only actors from the region but also beyond. China, with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), may emerge as an unlikely winner of the Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement. Beijing has long been investing in transport routes connecting Asia to Europe, and the corridor between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan would offer Beijing a second route to Europe through the South Caucasus. It is yet another reason why the Biden administration may not look positively at this initiative.

The six-country platform has not been met with the same enthusiasm by all countries. Beyond Georgia’s aversion to co-operation with Russia, since the new platform was announced, some Georgian experts have raised concerns that the new geopolitical realities may undermine Georgia’s transit role, which it has cultivated over the last three decades. For many years, Georgia has been a vital, secure, and reliable transit hub for East-West trade, linking Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that these transit routes, which have been established for several years and secured vast investments, can be easily replaced or reproduced in the complex region. Simply put, the new routes via Syunik province in Armenia cannot fully replace or challenge the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars (BTK) regional rail link. Moreover, the main energy pipelines in the region also pass via Georgian territory, from where they extend further into Europe.

Notwithstanding, Georgia’s role as a regional transit hub may lessen in the coming years if Baku and Yerevan establish a sustainable dialogue and reliable transport links with Iran and Turkey. Armenia currently considers Georgia a key transit route, including for seaports; however, if new transit routes become operational, the option of using Turkish seaports would also arise. According to Armenian experts, the unblocking of the South Caucasus and reopening of Armenian-Azerbaijani transport routes serves the interests of the Kremlin, creating uninterrupted land  corridors from Russia to Turkey. However, they acknowledge that to some extent, it is in the interest of Armenia too.

Obviously, the new transit routes within the proposed 3+3 co-operation format could shift the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus region and halt any future escalation of the conflict by offering economic benefits to all involved parties. Armenia’s possible dialogue with Turkey and Azerbaijan promises to make a fragile region a beacon of stability after a long-term period of instability and violence.

Source: This op-ed was prepared for by Fuad Shahbazov, an independent analyst based in Baku, Azerbaijan. @fuadshahbazov
Photo: Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway

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