Author: Giorgi Badridze, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
Georgia and Azerbaijan have long been connected by deep political and economic ties which amount, without exaggeration, to a strategic partnership. However, in this rapidly changing and volatile geopolitical environment, the two countries must devise a joint plan which will ensure that their cooperation continues to deliver tangible results for the stable economic development and security of both nations.
Since regaining their independence in 1991, both counties have encountered extreme challenges and demonstrated that cooperation, mutual respect and sometimes compromise can produce benefits for both sides. From virtually day one of their independence, Georgia and Azerbaijan were embroiled in bloody wars for their territorial integrity, wars which were encouraged and fueled by the Kremlin, determined as it was not to allow the former colonies to build viable democratic states. Despite such adversities, Azerbaijan and Georgia, together with their international partners, have successfully connected the Caspian energy resources to the international markets via the shortest and commercially most viable routes. As a result, through such joint projects as the Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipelines, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, Georgia has gained a greater international standing, while Azerbaijan was completely transformed. In this process, the two neighbors proved to be indispensable for each other, and entered a state of interdependence.
Yet, their ties are not limited to working together within major international energy projects – Georgia and Azerbaijan are important trading partners, have significant cultural connections and, most importantly, share long-term security interests. All the above proved to be possible despite differences in their foreign policy orientation and choice of political system. While the two countries share a strategic partnership with Turkey, unlike Azerbaijan, Georgia aspires to join NATO and the European Union. This, however, needs to be viewed as an opportunity, not an obstacle, in bilateral relations.
In the last few years, the geopolitical environment around the South Caucasus has been in flux. In 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has already delivered profound regional and global geopolitical and economic implications. Then, just days ago, tensions in the Middle East exploded, with the potential of the tensions spilling over into another major war. Under such dramatic circumstances, Georgia and Azerbaijan must ensure that in the short and medium term, the South Caucasus attains greater stability, and that the two partners upgrade their joint international function to a new level which is better suited to the modern challenges and opportunities.
While the Russian war on Ukraine is still raging, one consequence is already apparent – Putin’s fantasy about restoring the Russian empire has isolated his country and severed many international transportation routes that previously ran via Russia, creating an increased demand for the Middle Corridor. This applies as much to the land transportation of goods as it does to energy resources. Under such circumstances, Azerbaijan and Georgia must act without delay to stay relevant in the changing system of international relations, by providing the wider Caspian Sea region with greater connectivity with the wider Black Sea region. This goal involves upgrading the existing road and railway and ports infrastructure, as well as considering an increase in oil and gas pipeline capacities.
The demand for greater connectivity exists from both East and West. The countries of Central Asia have long been hostages of Russian-dominated transport and energy infrastructure, but in recent years, Russia’s virtual monopoly has started to fade as China actively builds economic partnerships with Central Asian countries. This includes building new pipelines and the delivery of increasing quantities of natural gas to China. Thus, China has successfully balanced the Russian dominance, and in doing so, has provided some security guarantees against potential Russian threats (particularly in Kazakhstan, which had every reason to be concerned for its safety and territorial integrity). However, without stable access to Western markets, the countries of Central Asia will never be able to fully realize their tremendous economic potential, nor their national sovereignty. Azerbaijan’s own experience well attests to this.
Both the European Union and Turkey, have, in turn, increased the reasons to be looking for the new sources of energy present in abundance in Central Asia, as well as for other economic opportunities that have so far been unavailable due to limitations in infrastructure. The EU must ask itself hard questions as to how, despite many warnings, some of its members found themselves in a position of dependence on Russian energy supplies, and why virtually nothing has been done in order to reach out to Central Asia to diversify its supplies and thus increase its energy security. Turkey could most likely be both an important participant of such future projects, and one of its main beneficiaries, as a consumer of extra energy and also as a provider of transit to European customers. It must be stressed that the abovementioned economic and energy opportunities would not last forever, as China is methodically working to expand its influence in Central Asia.
Clearly, developing a greater joint international role, in particular of a geoeconomic function, is an enormous challenge, one which requires hard work and coordination on the part of Georgian and Azerbaijani statesman and experts, as well as their joint efforts to reach out to their partners in Central Asia, Turkey, the European Union, and beyond. But as hard this may seem, the successful experience already realized in major international projects, particularly that of the BTC (which many in the 1990s deemed a “pipe dream”), shows that working together for mutually beneficial goals, unhindered by the zero-sum game mentality, can deliver impressive results.
Of course, one of the preconditions of attracting major partners and investors to join projects designed to increase regional connectivity is to make sure that the South Caucasus is not viewed as a volatile region, as it has been for decades. Today, fostering greater regional stability has better chances than ever. After the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, lasting peace with Armenia is within grasp. Georgia could play a greater role in peacebuilding efforts in the South Caucasus, a region that has long been held back by decades-long conflicts, by providing mediation, or at least a platform, for the ongoing peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia too must be offered a role in regional projects that can deliver the economic dividends of peace and leave less room for the revanchism inevitably fueled by Russia. Georgia has its own stake in the final resolution of the conflict and the lasting peace in its neighborhood, as it will be one of the major beneficiaries of greater stability in the South Caucasus.
The partnership of Georgia and Azerbaijan has been tested many times, and it represents evidence that the best foundation for international cooperation is not necessarily a close ethnic, religious or cultural kinship, but alignment of long-term national interests. By working for their national interests, successive governments in Georgia and Azerbaijan have achieved remarkable results. Yet, the changing times require new vision and new efforts to keep this partnership strong and relevant to the new challenges. For centuries, the South Caucasus has been a cultural bridge between the East and the West. Today, Georgia and Azerbaijan, in cooperation with their neighbors and partners, must work together to ensure that, collectively, they provide a stable and accessible economic and political bridge between the greater Black Sea and greater Caspian Sea regions.