Author: Ilgar VELIZADE
On December 10, 2020, the presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey, Ilham Aliyev and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at a joint press conference in Baku made a historic statement on the creation of a new platform for regional cooperation – Platform of the Six. According to the initiators, this can be a multilateral platform providing solid benefits for all the regional states involved in the cooperation platform.
New old initiative
Perhaps, few people remember that back in August 2008, before the artillery went quiet in the Greater Caucasus, the then Prime Minister of Turkey R. T. Erdogan came up with an initiative to create a political union of the Caucasian countries and Turkey, a political bloc in the Greater Caucasus. The initiative was named Platform for Stability and Cooperation in the Caucasus. Twelve years ago, when both the global and regional political forces had completely opposed views on the prospects for the regional development, any talks about stability, let alone regional cooperation were premature. But the proposal itself seemed to be oriented to the future.
Meanwhile, Ankara made the proposal for a reason. A decade ago, Turkey made progress in all areas of its Caucasian policy. The peace initiative of the Turkish prime minister was a very necessary tool for realizing Ankara's strategic interests in the region.
The main accomplishment of Turkey during these years was the establishment of good relations with Russia, which made it possible to effectively discuss both bilateral cooperation and complex regional problems and find reciprocal solutions to them at the same time.
Like hundreds of years ago, the nature of processes in the Caucasus depends on the interaction between Russia and Turkey. Turkey knows that Russia has a significant resource of trust from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. On the other hand, Moscow benefits from its active involvement in the development and conclusion of peace agreements that would be a solid platform for new regional agenda in the long run.
New initiative in new conditions
Under the new conditions, Azerbaijan joined the partnership between Turkey and Russia after the victory in the Patriotic War. In accordance with the agreement concluded on November 10, Baku has become a de facto platform for the implementation of large-scale geopolitical and geo-economic projects. Speaking about the prospects of the six-party platform, President Ilham Aliyev noted that Azerbaijan was a key state in various regional formats of cooperation, such as Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey, Azerbaijan-Russia-Iran, as well as the new Azerbaijan-Turkey-Russia format.
It is quite natural that the six-party platform can unite all these formats and serve as a dialogue platform for all regional and non-regional participants. Remarkably, Azerbaijan is the only country in the South Caucasus, which has borders with both all the regional (Armenia and Georgia) and non-regional (Russia, Iran and Turkey) states. This creates a geopolitical advantage that makes Azerbaijan a natural and effective communicator for everyone interested in constructive cooperation.
On the other hand, the initiative to create a new platform is attractive in terms of the participation of Russia and Georgia on the same platform. This is a unique essence of the proposal. A number of influential Georgian political figures have already made interesting statements indicating that Tbilisi has received a signal from Baku and is carefully studying it.
Thus, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili at the first meeting of the Georgian parliament elected in autumn called for the establishment of a new regional format - the Caucasian Platform. “We need a new approach, taking into account our neighbours in the Caucasus and the new realities. We need to think about the Platform of the Caucasus World, which will bring together the countries of the Caucasus, external actors and international organizations,” Zurabishvili said.
A few days later, Deputy Foreign Minister of Georgia Lasha Darsalia said that Georgia's participation in any joint formats is impossible until Russia "fulfils its international obligations." At the same time, the Georgian diplomat added that he did not know the details of the initiative voiced by the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Meanwhile, it should be assumed that the platform is an initiative for cooperation between different states united by common interests. The platform is not about unions, associations or institutionalised formats but is primarily for cooperation and a large regional dialogue. It will combine several of the above formats that are successfully implemented in our region today.
And, by the way, Georgia itself participates in this dialogue, in multilateral interaction.
Initiative active de facto
In fact, the six-lateral cooperation platform is already in operation, including Russia’s recent involvement in the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway implemented under the initiative of Azerbaijan. Russian producers use this route to deliver their products to Turkey. Georgia receives obvious material benefits from the transit. The two largest Russian companies Magnitogorsk Metal Plant and Yevraz are transporting cargo through the BTK as well. The route also serves for the transportation of grain products from Russia to Turkey.
On May 6, 2019, the heads of the railway companies of the Russian Federation, Turkey and Azerbaijan signed a memorandum on the implementaion of a project to build a second railway track (1,520 mm) between Akhalkalaki, Georgia and Kars, Turkey.
As stated in the press release of the Russian Railways Co., "the memorandum provides for joint actions to ensure regular rail transportation on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars route, including the establishment of economically feasible tariffs and the attraction of a new cargo base."
This confirms the growing interest of the Russians in the railway infrastructure of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia, which means that it does not exclude the cooperation between Russian and Georgian railway companies, albeit indirectly initially.
By the way, the construction of the Meghri section of the railway linking the mainland Azerbaijan with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic opens up additional transit and transport opportunities for all regional participants.
The Meghri corridor: new opportunities or...
Prime Ministers of Russia and Azerbaijan Mikhail Mishustin and Ali Asadov held a telephone conversation on November 18. They discussed "prospects for the development of railway infrastructure, taking into account decisions on the normalization of transport links in the South Caucasus." All the reconstruction works of the Armenian section of the railway line connecting Nakhchivan with the rest of Azerbaijan will be carried out by the South Caucasus Railway CJSC (SCR), which is a subsidiary of the Russian Railways OJSC.
According to some reports, SCR employees have already visited Meghri and made an overall assessment of the upcoming work. This is a 35-kilometre stretch along the Araz River valley.
The restoration of the railway will allow the SCR to improve its position, since the company could not reach the planned targets despite many years of operation in Armenia. This is understandable. Trapped within the Armenian borders, with only one exit to Georgia, the company operated in conditions of low freight traffic, and therefore with low profit. Now, with the unblocking of communication lines, SCR is able not only to secure access to the Russian railway system, i.e. to become, in fact, the main cargo carrier from Armenia to Russia and in the opposite direction. Now it can become involved in cargo transportation to Turkey.
The Iranian side may also show a certain interest in the resumption of railway communication through Nakhchivan. Thus, thanks to a railway crossing between Julfa (Iran) and Julfa (Azerbaijan) it is possible to ensure the transportation of goods both in the western direction (Turkey) and in the eastern direction through Azerbaijan, with access to Russia. Thus, without waiting for the opening of the Rasht-Astara railway link, Iran can ensure the transportation of goods by rail within the North-South route. Naturally, if the Rasht-Astara road is not built earlier than the Megri transport corridor.
Either way, the region is entering the phase of completing the largest sub-regional transport projects with the hub established in Azerbaijan. The growing significance of Azerbaijan in regional politics and economy, as well as the coinciding interests of various regional and neighbouring actors create a robust platform for cooperation, which the presidents of Turkey and Azerbaijan spoke about at a press conference on December 10.
As for the prospects of Armenia's involvement to the platform, if it changes its attitude towards the two main participants of the platform (Azerbaijan and Turkey) and takes a constructive policy, it may get an opportunity to get involved.
In Armenia, this process should take place through rethinking its place in regional politics and economics and abandoning territorial claims against its neighbours - Azerbaijan and Turkey. Time will show how and whether it will happen at all.