BACKGROUND: In June 2012, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan met in Trabzon to sign what is now known as the Trabzon Declaration, which codified the growing links between the three Caucasus powers and signaled the pooling of their efforts within a common format. The signatories pledged to support each other's candidacies within international organizations, including, crucially, Euro-Atlantic integration. The Declaration also reiterated the three states' longstanding policy of the inviolability of sovereign borders - a direct nod to Georgia and Azerbaijan's separatist conflicts.
Especially over the past decade, relations between the three countries have powerfully increased due to a convergence of economic and geopolitical interests. While trilateral relations have older roots, it was not until the vision of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline began to take shape in the 1990s that the three states began to cooperate as something resembling a joint grouping. After the BTC came online, later followed by the South Caucasus pipeline, other projects began to emerge. Ankara's economic and geopolitical strategy depended on the stable and voluminous flow of hydrocarbons from Azerbaijan and the Caspian to not only provide Turkey with badly needed energy, the lifeblood of its economic growth, but also offered diversification away from Russian "strings-attached" energy to Central and Eastern European markets as well. This had the added effect of helping realize Turkish aspirations to transform from a peripheral state to a "hub" or "bridge" state, as the Euro-Atlantic space was essentially expanded to the Caspian.
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu outlined the Justice and Development Party (AKP)'s foreign policy vision in his 2001 book Stratejik Derinlik - "Strategic Depth." Strategic Depth refers to Turkey's latent influence in its surrounding regions, which Davutoglu surmised could be harnessed to reorient Turkey from a Western flank to an independent pole of power. Although most attention has centered on the Middle East, efforts in the Balkans and the Caucasus have also been targets of Strategic Depth. In the Caucasus, Turkey's energy needs and strong partnership with Azerbaijan acted as a cornerstone for Ankara's strategy. Georgia was also included given its strategic location as a physical link between Turkey and Azerbaijan. For Georgia, cooperation with Turkey, a NATO member state and in a customs union with the EU (as of 1995), acted as a window to the Euro-Atlantic.
Trilateralism grew from Turkey's need for energy, Azerbaijan's ability to supply it, and Georgia's physical location to bring the two states together. Undergirded by Strategic Depth, cooperation gradually increased and barriers fell away. In 2012, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) was announced, adding yet another trilateral energy artery. And the recently-announced Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will ensure that Caspian hydrocarbons will make their way to European markets. In addition, the trilateral Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway (BTK) project, scheduled for completion in 2014, will add further capacity for the transport of energy, goods, and people. Significantly, BTK is the final piece in a contiguous Eurasian rail corridor between London and Shanghai to rival Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway. To take advantage of the economic potential of the projects, Turkish President Abdullah Gül has called for establishing a joint trilateral economic space. Turkey already has free-trade and passport-free agreements with Georgia and is reportedly in negotiations with Azerbaijan for the same.
IMPLICATIONS: The economic and geopolitical aspects of trilateralism are closely intertwined. The economic projects integrate the three states and bolster the geostrategic significance of the entire South Caucasus region. This also enhances Ankara's position as a South Caucasus power, despite a traditional bias towards Europe and the Middle East. One facet has been growing trilateral cooperation in the realm of defense. Georgia and Azerbaijan, which each face unique difficulties in procuring armaments abroad, have prioritized the development of domestic arms industries. Under newly-appointed Georgian defense minister Irakli Alasania, a bilateral working group was created to cooperate in the production of defense materiel, reportedly including armored vehicles, drones, and even warplanes. Given Turkey's relative success in this area, Turkish counterpart ministries are increasingly involved as technical advisers and even, in growing respects, as participants. The three states also recently held their first trilateral military exercises and have already planned several more for the future, including Tbilisi's request that Azerbaijani and Turkish forces be included in Georgia's annual exercises with U.S. forces next year.
Geopolitically, trilateralism represents a convergence of their strategic objectives. For Turkey, energy needs and the Strategic Depth vision make its involvement in the South Caucasus natural. Additionally, the unraveling of Strategic Depth in the Middle East - chiefly exemplified by Syria, Iran, and Egypt - has cast its growing influence in the South Caucasus into sharp relief. To Georgia, Turkey has transitioned from a portal to Europe and strong trade partner into a potentially legitimate regional counterweight to Russia and even a possible hedge against the glacial rate of progress towards NATO membership. And trilateralism not only offers Azerbaijan more reliable and friendlier markets for its energy, but amplifies Baku's geopolitical prominence. In each of these cases, the three states' narrower national interests are superseded by the broader benefits of trilateralism itself.
Although the three states have made pains not to overtly portray their grouping as an anti-Russian bloc, the practical consequences of the alignment make such a characterization unavoidable. Not only does the grouping explicitly omit Armenia, Russia's local client, but also actively isolates Yerevan through its pipelines and the BTK railway. In addition, the expansion of Turkish influence comes at Russia's expense. This is primarily a consequence of Moscow's overbearing regional policies – well-exemplified by the invasion of Georgia and the misguided decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That Turkey is able to at least partially fill this vacuum is unsurprising, but nonetheless regarded suspiciously by Russia's leadership, which continues to regard the South Caucasus as its exclusive domain. At least some analysts saw Russia's Black Sea naval exercises coinciding with the second meeting of Turkish, Georgian, and Azerbaijani foreign ministers under the Trabzon format as an expression of Moscow's displeasure.
Beyond Russia, other challenges exist. Although Georgia has sought to moderately normalize its relations with Russia since the Georgian Dream coalition came to power, Georgian foreign policy remains much less multi-vectored than that of Azerbaijan or even Turkey – which both depend on Russia for trade or energy. More concerning is the paucity of depth of trilateralism below the intergovernmental level. While Turkey and Azerbaijan have closely related cultures, languages, and religion (though predominantly Sunni and Shiite, respectively), Christian Orthodox Georgia is very much culturally and linguistically distinct. And in Georgia, a rash of xenophobia across the country since late 2012 has contributed to tensions between the Christian majority and its Muslim minorities. Though this has not yet become an international issue, that possibility should not be discounted. However, the effects of trilateralism should percolate below the governmental level over time. Indeed, this appears to be already happening in Georgia to some extent. The popularity of Turkish soap operas has even sired a common joke in Georgia that the television serials have conquered Georgia in a way that the Sultans of old could not.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkish-Georgia-Azerbaijani trilateralism is already an emerging force in the South Caucasus. Though not an explicitly anti-Russia bloc, it is clearly an alignment that actively bypasses Russia and its local client, Armenia. The opening of the BTK railway could mark yet another milestone for the axis, which could contribute to ever-greater economic integration and mutual interactions. In time, however, Moscow is likely to eventually take a harder line in opposition to the grouping, particularly after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Despite these and other challenges, this trilateral entente has the potential to be the prevailing player in the South Caucasus if it maintains its upwards trajectory. Given largely overlapping interests, the West has and should continue to support the development of South Caucasus trilateralism.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Michael Hikari Cecire is an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Project on Democratic Transitions.