The Enduring Trilateral Format: Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan

The former Soviet space has seen a number of political and economic alliances. Some of them, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), work only nominally; GUAM, another regional cooperation endeavor, resurfaced only recently. In Central Asia, any deep cooperation agreements between the countries largely failed in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, it is in the South Caucasus- where we have a perennial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, multiple breakaway territories and varied religious settings- that the cooperation between Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgia, or so-called trilateral cooperation, continues to be a strong one.

Moreover, over the past several years, since the trilateral cooperation was first introduced in May 2012 in Batumi, engagement between the three countries even increased. The countries initially pledged to deepen defense ties. And indeed, the defense cooperation between the countries increased and we witnessed numerous joint military exercises and sharing of intelligence between the three militaries. Moreover, the countries also cooperate on exchange of military staff and military expertise.

The last meeting between the three defense ministers took place on May 25 in Batumi. The enduring cooperation was tested by overshadowing developments around Georgia. The government of the country has been criticized both internally and internationally for shutting doors to Azerbaijani dissidents and arrests of those wanted by Turkey.

But the durability of strategic partnership takes precedence as the three countries need each other. Military cooperation, although not ambitious enough to cause fears in Moscow, along with railways and pipelines, represents a far greater sticking point for the countries than arrests of dissidents or other figures.

Thus, for instance, the Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isık noted that the three countries have “exemplary relations.” He also added that “new projects will be developed within the framework of the Tripartite Ministerial format.”

From his side the Georgian Defense Minister Levan Izoria mentioned said the sides discussed the future of the tripartite format and exchanged views on how to increase the cooperation to a higher level.

Similar statements were made by the Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel Zakir Hasanov.

Considering how shaky and fast-moving is the regional political and security landscape in the South Caucasus and the Black Sea, the cooperation between the three countries is certainly important. The trilateral alliance is altogether noteworthy as is consists of NATO member and EU-hopeful Turkey, EU/NATO-oriented Georgia, and Azerbaijan which up until now has avoided joining any large economic or military alliances.

The format, as said first inaugurated in 2012, has even seen the change of governments. For instance, in Georgia, the United National Movement was replaced by the Georgian Dream. While Turkey moved from close cooperation with Moscow to adversary and back again.

However, despite the three countries’ evidently divergent strategic paths, the basis for trilateral cooperation has only increased. Every country of the three needs the others. Turkey wants a more stable Georgia with deeper economic and energy relations, while Azerbaijan, in the light of uncertainties regarding Nagorno Karabakh, needs Turkey’s backing. Georgia, in between, under pressure from Russia and being dependent on transit, in turn needs both Turkey and Azerbaijan. Moreover, the two countries are Tbilisi’s biggest trade partners and investment sources.

The three countries do not align because of a common threat. Nevertheless, they all feel Russian pressure on various fronts from Syria to Abkhazia and S. Ossetia/Samachablo to Nagorno Karabakh. Even in Baku, the skepticism around Russia grows as recently Moscow abolished the All-Russian Azerbaijan Congress.

The trilateral cooperation between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan seems to be based on mutual interests and geopolitical challenges. The countries are less concerned with different religions, foreign policy vectors, etc. All three see how interdependent they are and there are clear imperatives (internal problems, foreign pressure) to increase the cooperation within the format. In other words, energy and transport infrastructure tying the three states, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars pipeline, take precedence.

And this geopolitical thinking, in fact, has been the key to the trilateralism’s continued relevance. True, the countries still lack a common agenda on how to further develop the military cooperation, and there are not yet any concrete mechanisms on how to deal commonly with foreign challenges, but the format nevertheless has proved to be a long-lasting one. The countries are clever to not posture themselves as creating a definite military alliance in order not to provoke Russia, rather using the trilateral format to stress the importance of economic and energy cooperation, potentially backed if/when necessary by deeper military cooperation.

Emil Avdaliani

08 June 2017 19:27