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A new regional cooperation format in the South Caucasus?

Various regional cooperation efforts in the South Caucasus have been suggested over the past years, politicians from Georgia and Turkey were particularly engaged. The “Peaceful Caucasus Initiative” was proposed by President Shevradnadze,whereas the “United Caucasus” was advocated by President Saakashvili. Suleyman Demirel proposed forming the “Stability Pact for the Caucasus”, whereas Erdoğan proposed creating the “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform”. It is crucial to note that none of them have proven to be effective or long-lasting since they did not include all of the region’s key actors. Following the Second Karabakh War, Turkey’s president proposed a new structure known as the “Six-Country Regional Cooperation Platform,” in which Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia, and Armenia would all be represented, whereas Iran proposed a similar “3 + 3” model (3 South Caucasian states: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan plus 3 major players: Iran, Turkey and Russia)

When Erdoğan was in Baku for the victory parade on December 10, 2020, he told the media that he discussed the issue with Russian President Putin, who welcomed the notion and promised to continue working on the new regional platform. Additionally, Ilham Aliyev reacted to the president’s initiative by stating, “I will abide by whatever you say,” according to the president. During a visit to Moscow in January 2020 as part of a larger regional diplomatic tour, former Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif stressed that “We are looking to form a six-party cooperation union in the region and it is the most important goal of this regional trip”.

During his regional tour, Zarif also visited Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. Russia and Azerbaijan backed Turkey’s and Iran’s regional ambitions, while Georgia and Armenia remained wary.

The Russian factor is the most significant impediment to Georgia’s participation in this platform. In the aftermath of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Georgia and Russia have no diplomatic relations; moreover, Russia still continues the creeping annexation of Georgia, attempting to undermine its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is also crucial to underscore that Russia actively works to damage Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions and aspirations through its propaganda machine.

Georgia stated at the outset of the initiative that it will not participate in the regional forum with Russia unless Moscow ends its occupation. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Khvtisiashvili, any platform for cooperation should be based on mutual respect, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the participating nations, hence, “Georgia will not be included in the peace platform alongside the country occupying its lands.”

First and foremost, if Georgia chooses to join this regional cooperation platform with its aggressor, it may look that it is relinquishing its own sovereignty. Georgia’s participation, in my opinion, will be an acknowledgement of Russia’s “unique leadership” position in the area. This is unacceptable from a political and logical standpoint. Second, the geopolitical situation in the Caucasus region changed after the Second Karabakh war, and ironically, Russia now acts as the region’s primary peacekeeper, without a doubt, such a 3+3 regional cooperation platform would increase Russia’s power in the region even more and use this opportunity to stifle the influence of the Western institutions and the United States. This should not be in the national interest of Georgia or its close allies. It is worth nothing that the occupied parts of Georgia may utilize Russia’s support to participate in this format. This will be another detrimental moment for Georgia’s interests.

Joining the 3+3 platform will harm Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic goals, the vast majority of Georgians want European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The dismal performance of pro-Russian political parties in the various elections indicates significant popular support for a pro-Western foreign policy agenda focused on democracy, defense and security cooperation. Georgia will not only jeopardize its geopolitical trajectory by joining this platform, but its Western allies may also respond negatively. During a recent visit to Tbilisi, the US Secretary of Defense emphasized that the US is against this format and it is absurd to see Georgia in the same format with its occupier .This is a vivid sign that none of our Western friends want to see Georgia, the region’s leading defender of Western values, in an anti-Western, anti-liberal configuration, which likely wants to reduce the West’s influence in the region.

This format will boost both Iran’s and Turkey’s dominance and Georgia, as a small state, should not like it since so many powers in the region might generate  ”political chaos “ and greater interference in our domestic issues. Additionally, Turkey’s ties with the West, particularly with the United States, are strained. It’s important to remember that the US has also strained relations with Iran, and that Iran is even one of Washington’s sanctioned countries. Georgia’s Western partners (particularly US) will not desire to see Georgia in the same cooperative structure as Iran for whatever reason, rational, economic or political. The fundamental goal of the US is to keep Iran politically and economically isolated; on the other hand, Iran hopes to escape international isolation and improve its political and economic status through this format. For this reason, Georgia should pursue a more cautious foreign policy toward Iran without jeopardizing strategic ties with the United States of America, one of its most significant partners in the world.

It is also important to highlight that joining such a platform might exacerbate the political situation in Georgia, which is already politically divided and polarized. Georgians who favor the country’s Euro-Atlantic destiny would definitely oppose the country’s participation in this format. This might lead to political protests and deepen the political crisis. Moreover, any Georgian government that is prepared to make amends with Russia and join a cooperative framework is dooming itself.

Lastly, Tbilisi should to be concerned that by revitalizing road and rail links to the south, the northern trans-regional route traveling via Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey (first and foremost, the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars Railroad) will be marginalized, because this format  will resurrect Soviet-era railways along the southern fringe of South Caucasus, diminishing Georgia’s  unique transit role.

In conclusion, following the Second Karabakh War, the geopolitical landscape in the Caucasus region has altered dramatically. Turkey and Iran have comparable regional cooperation ideas, and both nations did their hardest to persuade the Caucasian governments to embrace a new regional cooperation effort that would include Turkey, Iran, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The 3+3 format offers significant risks to Georgia and Georgia should refrain from participating in this project for the following reasons:

It is irrational and hazardous to be in the format in which your occupier is portrayed; it includes major security concerns and undermines the sovereignty of the state. Russia’s influence in the area will definitely grow as a result of this platform. Georgia should fight it as hard as it can.

Furthermore, Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory will be harmed, and its connections with faithful friends will be harmed, if such a format is used.

Finally, embracing this format may serve to marginalize current regional projects, which cannot be in Georgia’s national interest.

Lasha Gamjashvili

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Voras Online
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Autorius: Voras Online