The Emerging Azeri-Georgian-Turkish Trilateral
Non-Russia-led alliances in the former Soviet space rarely work. A signal example is the long-moribund Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova quadrilateral, GUAM, (earlier known as GUUAM when it also included Uzbekistan), launched in the heady days of 1997.
A successful exception is the trilateral Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan partnership launched in May 2012 at a summit in Georgia’s Black Sea city of Batumi. A memorandum pledged to boost military education and medicine, counterterrorism cooperation (including the protection of pipelines and railways), and to hold military exercises. Foreign ministers meet regularly; In December Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and his Azerbaijani and Georgian counterparts Elmar Mammadyarov and David Zalkaliani held the eighth summit, in Tbilisi. Defense ministers have been meeting since 2014.
With regional instability stoked by Russia, the momentum for wider partnership involving annual exercises on rotational basis, joint training, and intelligence-sharing is increasing. The number of troops participating in the exercises increases; so does their complexity, with scenarios including forestalling attacks on infrastructure. The 2018 exercises specifically involved operations to protect the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the strategically important Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and other facilities.
These interests trump bilateral problems and sometimes differing geopolitical outlooks. The trilateral format is a now-rare example of Turkey’s interests coinciding with broader Western ones. For Azerbaijan, sandwiched between Iran, Russia, and a direct rival, Armenia, supporting the railway and pipeline infrastructure through Georgian territory is a primary geopolitical objective. Georgia is also interested in boosting its east-west transit capabilities. Turkey positions itself as a transit energy hub, especially with the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline Project (TANAP), which together with the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), supports the South Caucasus infrastructure and keeps open a land corridor to the Caspian Sea.
Worries about Russia provide some geopolitical glue, though the trilateral partnership needs to walk a tightrope not to provoke the Kremlin into military or other reactions. Azerbaijan has far friendlier relations with the Kremlin than Georgia, but is nevertheless worried by Russia’s intransigent position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The prospects look bright. As the east-west infrastructure improves in the South Caucasus, military and terrorist threats will resurface. The need for viable joint protection brigades to deploy will increase, which could move the trilateral format to a higher level of cooperation, serving as a way for Turkey and Western countries to coordinate efforts to counter Russian influence, and the legacy of Soviet-era north-south infrastructure. Indeed the success of the trilateral may give more confidence to other regional organizations — not least GUAM. This Kyiv-based quadrilateral has somewhat revived in recent years, and is focusing on regional connectivity — for similar reasons. As Western friends of the region have long argued, more options for the countries around the Black Sea in transport, energy, and other links help dissipate the lasting “all roads lead to Moscow” legacy of Soviet rule.
Correction: This article incorrectly described TANAP as including, rather than connecting to, two other projects. We have amended the wording and apologize for the error.
Emil Avdaliani is a political analyst of Russia and the wider Eurasian region with a Ph.D. in history. He lectures at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University in Georgia.