The Caucasus isn’t just a region of overlapping ethnicity and religion, but one of clashing national interests. It is home to three regional conflicts and cursed by natural resources. Thus it is with great pleasure that we read some positive news from the region, namely the further development of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad.
When previously discussed, I noted that both Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s growing economic power and especially Azerbaijan’s importance as an energy producer and conduit has led to increasing regional integration, of which this new railway is one important example. Yet absent in all talk of progress and integration is Armenia whose name only appears in relation with the ongoing conflict in Karabagh. Readers will note other well known and critical projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas line.
However, at the moment, regional integration in the Caucasus is synonymous with the isolation of Armenia. Azerbaijan, being a key oil and gas producer as well as transit point for Central Asian energy, is enjoying both record oil prices and its strategic importance and using them to hold out on Karabagh talks. Although Azerbaijan’s position is that it wants its territory returned, this is unrealistic both in terms of Armenia’s national interest and in what would Azerbaijan do with a big region filled with Armenians who want to be part of Armenia. With reliable income and sitting on prime real estate, Azerbaijan becomes stronger over time as Armenia becomes weaker and further isolated.
The Georgian Connection
With a neo-imperial Russia to the north, Georgia is in a different position. It enjoys good relations with its other three neighbors, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan and also sits on prime real estate. With Armenia closed, Georgia is the sole connection through the Caucasus to Turkey, a situation that has worked to the great advantage of Tbilisi and become a central part of Georgia’s strategy. Inherent in Georgia’s strategy is good relations with all of its neighbors (despite problems with Russia). Thus, it is Armenia’s one regional link where goods can go both to and from Georgia, Turkey and Russia. Despite their political problems for example, there is regular bus service between Turkey and Armenia as well as trade. Georgia is also therefore Armenia’s most promising opportunity to break out, were Yerevan to modernize its railroads and roads to Georgia. At the moment for example, it takes around 16 hours to take the train from Yerevan to Tbilisi despite the very short distance (150 miles or so on a VERY indirect route) between the two.
What does this mean for the countries involved?
While regional projects such as this are fantastic steps forward, they tread through dangerous waters. With two conflicts in Georgia and one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they aren’t out of the woods yet. Connectivity will make war less likely and more costly, but not impossible. In addition, increased ease of trade and flow of goods will greatly benefit all parties involves, especially Georgia (who recently signed a free trade agreement with Turkey). Armenia’s situation is very delicate and will require it to both reach out internationally to bring more pressure to bear on Azerbaijan for dragging its feet on Karabagh as well as vigorously modernizing infrastructure to Georgia.
Perhaps most important is the effect on infrastructure. While Turkey has a well maintained and extensive rail and road system, Georgia and Azerbaijan have miserable roads and railroads that take two to three times longer than cars. This blogger’s record was 1 hour and 20 minutes for 23 (~14 miles) kilometers in Armenia. Neither Azerbaijan or Georgia were much better with most roads hardly fit for livestock. If the region is to have any future, it firsts needs roads and rail to go forward on. The Kars-Tbilisi-Baku line is one step forward.