A recent meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey in the Georgian city of Batumi may not seem very significant. Diplomatic gatherings are hardly an unusual affair and the resulting communique does not commit to any new developments.
But it underlines the growing importance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara axis and suggests that it could become increasingly formal and institutionalised. If the three states maintain their common interests and manage their differences the axis could become increasingly influential.
The communique was the second trilateral summit after a similar event in Turkey’s Trabzon last summer. That meeting, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their establishment of diplomatic relations, had seen the adoption of the Trabzon Declaration which committed them to establishing stronger economic and energy relations, as well as closer political ties.
The statement from the Batumi meeting “underlined the importance of the new format of regional cooperation… as an important platform for both political dialogue and implementation of specific trilateral projects”. Specifically, such trilateral projects – particularly the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway “could become a strong basis for deeper regional integration and political consolidation”. This gives some institutional weight to the joint initiatives which have underpinned the relationship since it began, starting with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in the 1990s.
Of particular interest is one of the justifications behind the BTK railway, the third trilateral link after the BTC and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines. The Batumi Declaration stressed that the BTK needed to be completed swiftly because it will be part of “the shortest and the most effective route for reverse transit of the [International Security Assistance Force] forces and cargoes from Afghanistan in 2014”.
This suggests the three states – or specifically Georgia and Azerbaijan – are determined to retain their role as a logistical corridor for the Afghan conflict, a role which has been of considerable political importance since the corridor developed in 2008-2009. It has bound them both closer to the Euro-Atlantic sphere and strengthened their geopolitical positions in a difficult neighbourhood. They will work together to retain that influence as the conflict winds down.
The Batumi Declaration’s focus on economic development and interconnections has been a common theme in discussions about the region’s future. Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan are all keen to develop the Caucasus as a corridor for energy, trade and transport to the Middle East and Central Asia and it is clear that doing so will require greater coordination between them.
Security is another key focus. The region faces numerous overlapping security issues and both Georgia and Azerbaijan, in particular, are eager to strengthen geopolitical alliances as a response. Arguably – and though it would not be publicly admitted – the emerging Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara axis is positioned as a counterweight to the even more nascent Moscow-Yerevan-Tehran axis.
Closer cooperation is also designed to tackle less traditional security threats. A few months ago the three held joint military exercises near Ankara, part of an ongoing effort to strengthen pipeline security. Defending energy projects has been a priority for all three states – Azerbaijan because of the proximity of pipelines to the ceasefire line with Armenian forces, Georgia because of their proximity to Russian-backed separatist regions, and Turkey because of the (now declining) risk of Kurdish militant attacks.
After the Batumi meeting Georgia’s Defence Minister Irakli Alasania said that Turkey and Azerbaijan may consider joining the annual military exercises held by the US and Georgia. This would not only cement the trilateral relationship, further institutionalising its security aspect, but would also give the US a stronger role. American policy in the Caucasus has been fairly fragmented and weak over the past few years; engaging with it via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara axis would help to provide some strategic cohesion.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told the press after the meeting that the cooperation between the three states is a “message to our neighbours in Armenia that it would be better for them to join the club rather than getting out of the club”. But Yerevan has shown no sign of being persuaded to compromise by economic arguments, and after twenty years of exclusion is probably not going to change its mind now. However its isolation will become more entrenched as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara axis becomes more formalised and the energy and transport corridor linking the three countries develops.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara axis is unlikely to develop into a formal bloc – competing security priorities and a desire not to provoke other regional powers will probably prevent the creation of a new organisation. They don’t need it: the existing level of cooperation is already high, and collaboration is set to deepen even further in the months and years ahead.