BACKGROUND: The presidents of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia conducted their first trilateral summit on May 6, 2014. Organized on the initiative of Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and held in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the three heads of state agreed to deepen their economic cooperation. The Turkish delegation that accompanied President Gül to the summit included Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız and Transport and Communications Minister Lütfi Elvan. While the discussions included important current and future energy pipeline projects that will help reduce European Union dependency on Russian energy supplies, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway project was singled out for special attention at the summit. Expected to become operational by the end of 2015, the BTK railway will provide the final link in a China-to-Europe overland transport route via Kazakhstan that entirely bypasses Russian territory, thereby breaking Moscow’s stranglehold over Eurasian commercial transport. Costing more than US$613 million, the 513-mile BTK rail line is also expected to boost the total trade volume between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey to more than US$10 billion per year.
Despite construction delays on the Georgian section of the rail line, the Chinese Ministry of Railway Transport has already expressed China’s commitment to transport 10 million tons of cargo annually via the BTK railway. Carrying Chinese goods for European markets, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail line can interlink with the European rail system via Turkey through the Kars-Edirne line, a high-speed railway being constructed from Kars to Turkey’s westernmost city Edirne, situated near Turkey’s borders with EU members Bulgaria and Greece. It will utilize Turkey’s recently completed Marmaray underwater rail line connecting the Asian and European sides of the Bosporus strait. The most ambitious railway construction project in Turkish history, the Kars-Edirne line is expected to reduce the transit time across Turkey from 36 hours to 12 hours, increasing the cost-effectiveness of the new China-to-Europe route. China’s eagerness for a feasible overland export route that will not be subject to Russian interference has prompted Beijing to fund most of the construction of the Kars-Edirne line. Under an agreement signed between China and Turkey in October 2010, Beijing has agreed to provide US$28 billion in financing to cover two-thirds of the estimated constructions cost.
However, it is precisely in the South Caucasus that the new China-to-Europe route is most vulnerable to Russia's use of force to disrupt its operation. During the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the Georgian railway system sustained substantial damage from Russian bombardments. Operating through its client-states in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia would have both the means and motivation to wage low-intensity conflict to interfere with the functioning of the BTK railway. Despite Russia's recent sale of one hundred T-90C tanks to Azerbaijan, Moscow can similarly pressure Baku through Russia's alliance with Armenia and, by extension, Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh.
IMPLICATIONS: The trilateral presidential summit between Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan occurred during the height of the violent clashes between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Less than 56 hours before Gül’s flight to Tbilisi, pro-Russian rebels in the city of Sloviansk shot down two Ukrainian army helicopters while fighting continued to move as far west as Odessa.
President Abdullah Gül indicated the geo-strategic significance of his participation even prior to his arrival at the trilateral summit. In a press conference before boarding his plane to Tbilisi, Gül described the BTK railway, along with the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), as “super important projects.” Characterizing the projects as representing an unprecedented level of cooperation between the three countries, Gül emphasized Turkey's strategic objective that the BTK railway and TANAP should contribute to the stability of the South Caucasus.
At the summit itself, the Turkish president highlighted the importance of the BTK railway project in his remarks, announcing that 80 percent of the construction on the rail line was complete. Georgia's Minister of Economy, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, announced that he expected the entire railway to be operational before the end of 2015.
In a Georgian-Turkish Economic Forum held the day after the summit, Georgia's Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili promised that Georgia would spare no effort to complete its section of the BTK rail line as soon as possible. In an indication of the strategic implications of the BTK railway project, Garibashvili referred to Turkey in the same speech as a "reliable ally" and "strategic partner." The Georgian prime minister's comments echoed President Margvelashvili's remarks at the close of the summit on the previous day.
In those remarks, Margvelashvili went further and acknowledged that the principals had discussed their "efficient cooperation" in the military sector as well as the economic sector. In his closing remarks at the conclusion of the summit, Gül himself acknowledged that the three principals discussed the Ukraine crisis, which he described as having a negative impact on the entire region. Turkey’s president also reiterated Turkey’s support for the territorial integrity of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Perhaps most significantly, the principals agreed that the trilateral presidential summit should be convened on a regular basis. Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev offered to host the next conference in the Azerbaijani capital Baku. Alluding to the geo-strategic implications of the BTK railway, President Aliyev stated that the joint Turkish-Georgian-Azerbaijani project had "global purposes" and therefore characterized the trilateral summit as "a very significant international event." In the same vein, President Margvelashvili implied that the three nations were seeking to develop other stakeholders in the BTK railway and TANAP projects, and by extension, in Turkish-Georgian-Azerbaijani strategic cooperation. "We are expanding our cooperation to the European and Asian countries, so that more countries could use the benefits resulting from our close cooperation," the Georgian president said.
The de facto trilateral strategic alliance creates a foundation for the formation of a wider coalition of security cooperation. Since Turkey and Azerbaijan are the outlet points for the BTK railway and TANAP, both countries have the opportunity to create alliance structures with the Caspian littoral states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Quite significantly, twenty days after the trilateral presidential summit, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan conducted their first ever trilateral meeting in Baku. Focused on enhancing energy and security cooperation, the foreign ministers agreed to hold trilateral meetings biannually.
For its part, Russia was conspicuously silent about the first trilateral summit of the presidents of Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. There was no official comment by Moscow aside from acknowledging that the event occurred. The trilateral summit was not even mentioned by the official RIA News Agency or by pro-government media outlets such as Izvestia. Only the independent Russian news agencies Regnum and Rosbalt carried coverage of the event. Without an overt declaration about security cooperation coming out the summit, Moscow's reticence may reflect a decision not to antagonize the European Union and the United States, particularly out of the concern about providing the U.S. and its NATO partners with a pretext for the further integration of Georgia and Azerbaijan into NATO structures.
Given that Turkey's President Gül took the opportunity of his presence in the Georgian capital to reiterate Ankara's longstanding policy of "strong support" for Georgia's integration into NATO, Moscow would have been well advised to mute its response to the summit. Indeed, the day after the trilateral summit, Moscow noticeably shifted its tone in an effort to lower the overall political temperature over the Ukraine crisis, with President Vladimir Putin calling for a postponement of referendums in Eastern Ukraine and lending his support for Ukraine's then upcoming presidential elections.
CONCLUSIONS: The institutionalization of trilateral presidential summits between Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan is a significant geopolitical development. The public prominence that Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül gave to the BTK railway seems to signal an increased Turkish commitment to the collective security of Azerbaijan and Georgia.
In the context of Russia's annexation of Crimea, Russian sponsorship of low-intensity conflict in eastern Ukraine, and Russian designs on Transnistria, along with Russia's ongoing presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Turkey's participation in the trilateral summit appears to be an effort to develop collective security mechanisms to protect Turkish vital interests in the emerging Asia-to-Europe energy and transportation corridor that traverses the south Caucasus.
If the next trilateral presidential summit includes some formal declaration on security matters, then Turkey will become the most powerful member of what will be tantamount to a southern Caucasus collective security formation. Combined with Turkey's participation in a trilateral formation with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Turkey may then emerge as the leading force in a grand Caucasus-Caspian security coalition.
Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Shalem College, Jerusalem, and at the Middle East and Asia Units, Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University. Dr Tanchum also teaches in the Departments of Middle Eastern History and East Asian Studies, Tel Aviv University.
(Image Attribution: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)