March 13, 2012, Tuesday

Azerbaijan and Georgia: Visionary ‘Caucasian Tandem'?

Georgia and Azerbaijan are “more than strategic partners,” declared Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in a speech at the Azerbaijani parliament during a visit to Baku last week.

His remarks focused on the history of fruitful relations between the two countries and how past experience might provide a useful template for the future development of the South Caucasus region. The speech made reference to “Ali and Nino,” a famous Azeri novel that ends with Ali bey's death in a battle against invading Bolshevik (Russian) troops, the immediate precursor to the fall of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. Saakashvili proposed writing a happy ending to this well-loved tragedy.

The main target of his remarks was Russia, and his use of the Azerbaijani parliament as a platform for his criticism raised concerns among some Azerbaijani members of parliament worried about the potential damage to Azerbaijani-Russian relations. However, in light of the recent return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, Saakashvili's speech received particular attention from both the local and international media. Putin's personal hatred for his pro-Western Georgian counterpart Saakashvili is no secret and has been the source of significant tensions between their two countries.

Generally speaking, local and international experts alike believe that the decline in US interests in the Caucasus has left the region to Moscow's hands. However, former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski made the excellent point that “American decline would leave Georgia totally vulnerable to both Russian political intimidation and military aggression” (Brzezinski, “Strategic Vision, America and Crisis of Global Power”). This is the main reason that President Saakashvili was keen to get Baku's perspective on Putin's Eurasian Union proposal -- also, bearing in mind that he visited Baku after visiting Washington, D.C., some local experts believe that Saakashvili carried a US message.

Moreover, Saakashvili emphasized once again that the future of the Caucasus must belong to the European Union and NATO. To address this point, the current plans for a Eurasian Economic Union are still far too ambitious and, moreover, the timeline -- which sees the creation of such a union by 2015 -- is unrealistic. It is also worth recalling that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called for the establishment of a similar union across the Eurasian region back in February 2010, a suggestion that seems largely forgotten. For its part, Azerbaijan will consider the whole picture, but its initial focus remains a solid foundation for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The political establishment in Baku is cautious about how Putin's return will affect the format of the regular trilateral meetings between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia on the conflict. In this regard, Turkey's move either towards or against Putin's Eurasian Union initiative will influence Azerbaijan's decision -- though at this point it is important to note that in any case, Azerbaijan has still not joined the free-trade zone between the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. Until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved, Azerbaijan does not support any economic integration with Armenia.

Saakashvili's other message was a call for dedicated work on a “Common Caucasus.” Clearly, President Saakashvili is a strong supporter of this concept, but, in fact, the theoretical basis for a “Common Caucasus” has existed since April 8, 1996, following the signing of the “Tbilisi Declaration on Peace, Security and Cooperation in the Caucasian Region” between then-Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev and then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. The declaration has been an essential component of the vision for the region's future, but given the lack of progress on conflict resolution across the region, this integration model has not worked. For similar reasons, Turkey's Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform remains unrealized. With regards to the role of the EU and NATO, Azerbaijanis were upset by the EU's feeble efforts to assist Georgia in developing its membership ambitions and its failure to support Georgia in asserting itself before Russia. Thus, Azerbaijan is looking for integration models in the neighborhood; the outcomes of Turkey and Georgia's aspirations will be important for Baku.

After the collapse Soviet Union -- the “prison of nations” -- Azerbaijan and Georgia became the “prisoners of 3Gs”: geography, geo-economics and geopolitical competition. However, the two countries turned those obstacles into advantages with the help of neighborly relations. Thus Azerbaijan gained direct access to the Black Sea; the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline were built; the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway will soon be completed; and, most importantly, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey have essentially formed a geopolitical team with significant support from the US. The Azerbaijani-Georgian relationship was not merely born of “geopolitical necessity” or “historical destiny.”

The 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia reaffirmed the future of the Baku-Tbilisi tandem; during the war, Azerbaijan retained a neutral stance with regards to Moscow-Tbilisi tensions, but, in reality, Georgia felt the support of Azerbaijan, especially through economic cooperation. The energy supplies and support from Azerbaijan were key to Georgia maintaining its internal functionality. The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), the largest taxpayer in Georgia, has invested $1 billion in Georgia since forming its local affiliate, SOCAR Georgia, and controls 80 fuel service stations nationwide. During President Saakashvili's visit, both sides agreed to form a joint bid to co-host the 2020 European Football Championship.

There are no existing political or economical problems between the two countries, but, in a broader sense, there is one common shared concern besides protracted conflicts. The primary concern in the broader sense is the future of GUAM. Azerbaijan and Georgia are the main facilitators of this structure, which has enabled them to realize their ambition for a Western-oriented regional organization. Established in 1997, GUAM unites countries that have common interests in preserving territorial integrity -- Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. At the moment, GUAM's future is largely dependent on increased support from the West. Its vision remains rooted in the 1990s paradigm, and it needs to develop a comprehensive agenda for the future.

The 3G structure that characterizes this Caucasian Tandem (geopolitics, geo-economics and geography) has strengthened a fourth dimension -- geostrategic vision -- that is vital for the future of the region.

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