From Baku to Kars

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.

ktb_rail.jpg

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.

About Chirol

Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852 - 1929) was a journalist, prolific author, world historian, and British diplomat. He began his career as a foreign correspondent and later became editor of the London Times. After two decades as a journalist he joined Her Majesty's Foreign Ministry as a diplomat and was subsequently knighted for his distinguished service as a foreign affairs advisor. Additionally, he wrote a dozen books on foreign affairs including The Far Eastern Question (1896), Serbia and the Serbs (1914), The End of the Ottoman Empire (1920) and The Egyptian Problem (1921). He is generally credited with popularizing "Middle East" in reference to the Arabian Peninsula with his book The Middle Eastern Question (1903). "Chirol" is a US citizen and graduate student studying Defense and Strategic Studies and government contractor. As with the historical Chirol, he has traveled to over two dozen countries and lived abroad for many years. Chirol speaks English and German fluently with basic knowledge of manyl of others.
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5 Responses to From Baku to Kars

  1. R says:

    Armenia’s isolation should not be overstated. Iran may prove to be a more reliable transit outlet than Georgia, given the problematic border between Georgia and Russia.

    Just days ago the Russian state railroad was awarded a concession to upgrade and operate the Armenian railroad http://www.armenialiberty.org/armeniareport/report/en/2007/12/C1442B98-40D3-460C-85FA-44269A843CDC.asp

    Earlier in the year Iran and Armenia inaugurated a gas pipeline which provides Armenia with an alternative to Russia. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6466869.stm

    Meanwhile Armenia is a net energy exporter as it supplies Georgia with electricity. This will increase once Armenia replaces its nuclear reactor at Metsamor.

    Azerbaijan has a fairly limited economic window as its revenues from oil & gas will likely start to decline in 2012.

  2. Chirol says:

    R: Thank you for hte links on Armenia, I was unaware of those two events. And as for Azerbaijan, you’re correct, it has a short window of time to develop and modernize itself before its energy revenue begins to fade. This is also the time at which analysts worry a new war over Karabagh may begin.

  3. Michael says:

    Wikipedia’s entry on the Azeris mentioned genetic studies showing that the Azeris of Azerbaijan are more closely related to the Armenians than to the Azeris of northern Iran. Ironic when you consider all the fighting between the Armenians and Azeris and their relations with Iran.

  4. Curzon says:

    Great post. The map makes it look as if the rail would actually enter part of Armenia — I assume this is just a minor glitch in the graphics, yes?

  5. Chirol says:

    Yes, a minor glitch!