A fairly broad range of views were stated on implications of the recent Nagorno Karabakh war and its impact on the South Caucasus regional landscape. Our aim is to again address some consequences from Tbilisi’s standpoint by sharing some personal thoughts with respect to various aspects of the post-Karabakh conundrum, including those in relation to transport infrastructure, prospects for a tri-partite format for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, as well as touching on interaction of the regional powers when it comes to certain regional dynamics.
The Axis of the Issue
Georgia’s main political vectors in the South Caucasus are cooperation for peace and stability as well as maintaining good neighborly relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan, an approach that became even more prominent during the so-called “Second Karabakh War”.
More precisely, we refer to the statement that Georgia’s National Security Council made on the 3rd of October 2020, in which the Georgian side convincingly underlined the need to immediately bring to an end the “hot” phase of the conflict.
The Georgian government took specific measures: it stopped granting permission for military goods to transit through Georgian territory towards Azerbaijan and Armenia, and it offered Tbilisi as a neutral location for negotiations between the two.
From this, we can distinguish two principal issues: 1. Georgia not only demonstrated its attitude towards the conflict, but also expressed the country’s readiness to participate in the process of normalizing the situation in the region. 2. In this statement, Georgia’s government distinctly explained the importance to the its two largest ethnic minorities of maintaining stability and order.
The National Security Council’s statement and Georgia’s policy towards conflicts in general could be summed up as: Tbilisi acted according to the conditions defined by the current reality in the region and used the maximum of its abilities due to this reality.
When talking about a possible Georgian component in efforts to normalize the Karabakh conflict, it is noteworthy that in different mass media, the question of the quality of Tbilisi’s coordination with Western partners has been considered more than once. On this topic, we would like to mention that any similar kind of coordination or communication undertaken by Georgia could only be defined by the reality of the current situation in the region and by Georgia’s possibilities.
However, when discussing this specific topic, it is important to clearly realize that Georgia’s coordination with the West over issues linked to the South Caucasus should not depend solely upon the dynamics of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
It is important to remember that the partnership between Georgia and the West originally began as early as the late 1990s, when large transport projects (such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and South Caucasus gas pipelines) were initiated.
Besides this aspect, another relevant issue for further discussion is the objective evaluation of how strong Western interests and influence are in the South Caucasus. Accordingly, when we talk about Tbilisi’s efforts to strengthen these interests, we should deliberately underline the fact that the efforts of our Western partners are just as (if not even more) vitally important for any kind of cooperation or coordination in the South Caucasus.
The Transport Component of the Ceasefire Agreement
The 10th of November 2020 agreement over Nagorno-Karabakh and subsequent documents call for new transport corridors on the territory of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Without going into too much detail regarding these projects, in this article we shall discuss whether or not these projects pose any kind of risk to Georgia’s potential for transport and transit.
There have been some pessimistic evaluations, but we believe that this pessimism is to some extent exaggerated when it comes to the potential weakening of Georgian corridors. More precisely, we would argue that:
I. The decision to go ahead with a large transport project cannot be merely the subject of geopolitical discussions at a level of “I want this and I don’t want that”. It is also important to remember any project or initiative must be carried out according to a specific investment model. In other words, if a project is not based upon clear and self-sufficient financial resources, it will be impossible to carry out and might turn into a dubious deal. Without a readiness to provide financial support, managing projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline, the South Caucasus gas pipeline or the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line solely according to geopolitical calculations would not have been sufficient.
II. One must also mention the need for trust in the stability of the future operation of these corridors or projects. As a rule, it takes several years to generate such trust, and through a series of complicated processes, the project acquires its characteristic geopolitical and geoeconomic image. Nowadays, one could easily say that the so-called “Georgian transport corridors” have already obtained the signatures they need.
III. Yet certain paragraphs of the agreement on the creation of new transport corridors with the participation of Azerbaijan and Armenia are quite ambiguous and unclear. For example, no interpretation of these paragraphs gives a clear feeling that the implementation of a specific transport project is once and for all predefined by the signatory parties of the agreement. Guaranteeing the safety of these transport links is equally important, as is the extent to which the Russian Federation can play the role of impartial guarantor.
IV. We will pay attention to certain aspects: transport corridors going through Georgia, through active maritime ports, ensuring the passage of goods to the Black Sea region. An intermodal system such as this, in terms of investments, is no less important since it has a direct impact on the economic component of freight transportation.
V. Finally, one must also mention the two most important elements of the attractiveness of transit corridors passing through Georgia. The first of these is Georgia’s political system itself, which although far from ideal, possesses indisputable advantages in terms of doing business thanks to the transparency, simplicity and legibility of Georgian legislation. In addition to this, what should also be taken into consideration in the big picture is the high level of Georgia’s integration with Western markets compared to its South Caucasian neighbors. And it could even be asserted that such a steady political and economic integration with Western partners is an important question not only for Georgia but would also be in the interests of Baku and Yerevan.