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Which formats of regional cooperation formats are preferable for Georgia

photo: holiday.by
30 July 2022
Irina Dzhorbenadze Irina Dzhorbenadze

Irina Dzhorbenadze |Tbilisi

CISS expert

It is counterproductive for Georgia to stay outside of the regional cooperation format, however, participation in the «3+3» platform initiated by the Presidents of Turkey and Azerbaijan and supported by Russia is unacceptable for this country at the current stage. Remember that according to the proposal of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ilham Aliyev the group of 6 countries should include three states of the South Caucasus Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia plus Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Why does Tbilisi have certain fears of participating in the «3+3» format

Let us remind here that after the Second Karabakh War finished by the solid victory of Baku, Ankara proposed implementation of the new format for the post-war interaction in the South Caucasus via the Six-Party Regional Cooperation Platform uniting Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Russia and Iran. According to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his proposal was supported by Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, and Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation.

From the very beginning, Russia welcomed this initiative and got actively engaged in its practical implementation.  Thus, the first meeting of the platform of the six countries took place in Moscow in December 2021. It was co-chaired by Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs Andrey Rudenko (Russia), Vahe Gevorgyan (Armenia), Khalaf Khalafov (Azerbaijan), Sedat nal  (Turkey), as well as the General Director of the EAEU Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran Alireza Haghighian. Tbilisi did not send its representatives to this meeting. However, all the participants expressed their interest in engaging Georgia and agreed that the «door» remains open for this country. [1]

According to the RF Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the participants of the meeting discussed the prospects of developing comprehensive regional cooperation: «It was agreed to focus the platform on practical issues interesting for all the participants. Among them measures to improve mutual trust, interaction in trade, economic, transportation, cultural and humanitarian spheres, counteracting common challenges and threats». [2]

At first, David Zalkaliani, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia at that time, diplomatically commented the invitation to participate without saying a firm «yes» or «no». According to his words, «at this stage he was not seeing the possibility to participate in any new regional format together with Russia». [3] Nevertheless, there was a scandal the Georgian opposition politicians and the pro-Western expert community attacked the Minister for «betrayal» of the European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia immediately released a statement claiming that the Minister «was not understood properly». The emotions were laid to rest, however, if this topic is raised again and Georgia will be mentioned with respect to its unwillingness to participate in «3+3» platform, the scandal will break out again and on a much bigger scale (the reasons will be described further below).

The reasons for Tbilisi not joining the «3+3» platform at the moment are obvious. Firstly, because Russia was invited, and Georgia does not have diplomatic relations with Russia they were cut off after Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In addition, Russian military bases remain in these territories. This is why Georgia refused to participate in the proposed six-sided format. Even though such step could contribute to normalizing the relations between Georgia and Russia to that or another extent.

Let us remark here that the President of Azerbaijan showed understanding of the fact that Georgia was not ready so far to support the platform because of not having diplomatic relations with Russia and called for respect of the position of the Georgian government. «However, despite of that, the relations between the countries of the region are very important for regional cooperation, assuring regional stability and mitigating the risk of war», Ilham Aliyev emphasized.

Secondly, the West was not invited to participate in the new platform, so if the Georgian authorities join the «3+3» format, they automatically will be labelled as the «Kremlin agents» once again and accused of deviating from the European and Euro-Atlantic course. Right now, this is extremely untimely for the Georgian politicians who are now in power, because even without that they are constantly blamed in flowing the interests of Moscow with and without a reason.

Thirdly, the collective West, and in particular the United States, which Tbilisi constantly is forced to look back at, will not approve of Georgia being within one single format not only with Russia, but with Iran as well. Lloyd Austin, the chief of Pentagon, made a very representative statement during his visit to Tbilisi: he emphasized that the US had negative attitude to Georgias participation in the «3+3» format against the background of the agreement on military cooperation between the USA and Georgia signed during this visit. [4]

And yet, opinions differ

According to Valery Chechelashvili, a diplomat and a political analyst, «the «3+3» format is not only about the pluses, but rather about the minuses minus the US and the EU. But they are our strategic partners, so it does not make sense for Georgia to participate in such formats without Washington and Brussels». On top of that, Russia and Iran both are under severe international sanctions, respectively, they «cannot contribute positively into forming the regional stability». [5]

Let us note that the above listed opinion is the most common for the Georgian body politic and expert community. However, there is a different point of view: the political analyst Arno Khiderbegishvili believes that participation in the group of 6 countries has high potential for Georgia, in particular from the standpoint of transportation, energy-related projects, receiving «huge economic and political dividends».

Between the West, Russia and Turkey

Today, Tbilisi has to maneuver. Why? Georgia has to take the position of the West into account, to keep balance in its relations with Russia facing pressure on behalf of Turkey in the context of membership in the so far vague configuration of the platform, while it still unclear, what power center will be dominating when the «3+3» format comes into reality. So far, this has not happened due to the continuing contradictions between Armenia and Azerbaijan and periodically between Iran and Azerbaijan.

However, as we mentioned above, it is extremely undesirable for Georgia to stay outside the regional format, even though it does not have problems collaborating with the potential members of the future platform (including the RF) on a bilateral basis in transportation and logistics, trade and economy, and in other spheres. Moreover, Georgia did not join the economic sanctions against Russia imposed by the European Union, the USA and a number of other countries provoking the displeasure of the West and of the radical opposition at home. However, if the platform of the five countries comes into being in the foreseeable future, and the transportation routes in this area are augmented (e.g., 75% of Armenias export currently goes via Georgian territory, but then it will be re-routed to Russia, and from there to other countries via Azerbaijan), the budget revenues will decrease significantly for Georgia, as it will lose part of its transit functions.

In pursuit of the «happy mean»

As for the officials, the Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili proposed his personal initiative of Peaceful Neighborhood. Its objective was claimed as restitution of trust between the neighboring countries and enhancement of the Georgias role as the mediator. According to Garibashvili, Tbilisi proposes to establish the regional platform for informal dialogue between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

It means Georgia strives to find the «happy mean» in the regional integration context excluding both its Western allies and Russia. This will allow the country not to fence off regional formats, at the same time avoiding the American and European suspicions of participating in the geopolitical project in favor of Russia, Turkey and/or Iran.

However, the participation of Russia (maybe indirect via the vague regional format) is still present, especially if we take into account that cargoes from Russia are transported via Georgian territory to Turkey, Armenia and back. Nobody cancelled the project of laying the power transfer lines Russia Georgia Armenia Iran. Let us also remember that Azerbaijan without any official platform exports oil and gas to Turkey via Georgian territory (Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan and Baku Tbilisi Erzurum pipelines), and the gas pipeline from Russia to Armenia also runs through the same territory.

Probably, the attractiveness of Georgias participation in the group of 6 countries may be in assuring the regional security and creating the environment excluding the acts of the parties contradicting with the interests of one another. But again, the impeding factor here (even leaving aside the concerns of the West) is the situation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Do no harm to Georgia: this is important for the group of five countries

Basically, non-participation of Georgia in the «3+3» platform, its transformation from the group of six into the group of five countries will not create noticeable problems for the regional integration and will not give birth to any difficulties for its sustainability. However, this will be the case only if radical opposition fully controlled by the West unhappy with the current Georgina government does not come into power.

By the way, the economic interaction issues will be part of the agenda for the 9th meeting of the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan scheduled for the near future in Baku. In particular, the parties intend to especially focus on increasing the throughput capacity of the railway Baku Tbilisi Kars and on developing the Europe Asia transportation corridor.

Let us emphasize once again that today the attempts to add Georgia to the «3+3» platform initiated by Ankara and Baku may cause serious turmoil in the domestic situation in Georgia. The revival of the discussion about Georgia joining the group of six countries will provide a reason for the West and for the radical opposition to even stronger unwinding of the anti-government sentiment. Today the Western «partners» in Georgia already call for the regime change using such terms as «de-tycoonization» and «de-bidzinization» (meaning the billionaire Bidzin Ivanishvili, who is still believed to be the shadowy ruler of the country and the «Kremlins protégé»).

So far, the Georgian authorities withstand the onslaught of the West irritated by the fact that Tbilisi is trying not to challenge Moscow and refuses to open the «Second Front» in terms of the sanctions. Sometimes, Georgia even «huffs» moderately, without violating the diplomatic limits. However, the very fact of Tbilisi daring for this makes the Wets more and more concerned, so respectively it doubles its efforts to change the existing regime in Georgia.

In short, it seems feasible today to «forget» in a certain sense about Georgias participation in the «3+3» platform because the excessively active attempts to persuade it may cause nothing but harm. Baku and Yerevan should rather think about their own participation in the exclusively South-Caucasian platform (especially given the fact that Armenia has not finalized yet its participation in the group of six and  looks back on the opinion of the West, and Iran is hesitant), so that neither party is forced to search for the balance in the relations. Of course, the group of three may develop and start functioning only if the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are settled finally. 

The trilateral format of regional cooperation may be autonomous and may be interacting with the group of five countries in parallel, so these two formats may supplement one another without prejudicing the Georgian interests.

1. «3+3» platform for South Caucasus is functioning as a practical format the RF Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sputnik Armenia, 27.12.2021. https://ru.armeniasputnik.am/20211227/platforma-33-po-yuzhnomu-kavkazu-funktsioniruet-kak-pragmatichnyy-format---mid-rf-36899597.html

2. «3+2» net of Georgia: Moscow launched the platform in South Caucasus . Eadaily.com, 10.12.2021. https://eadaily.com/ru/news/2021/12/10/3-2-za-vychetom-gruzii-moskva-zapustila-platformu-na-yuzhnom-kavkaze

3. «3+3» platform: more questions than answers. Sputnik Azerbaijan, 02.11.2021. https://az-sputniknews-ru.turbopages.org/turbo/az.sputniknews.ru/s/20211102/platforma-33--voprosov-bolshe-chem-otvetov-434787525.html

4. Lloyd Austin explained the US position on «3+3» format in South Caucasus. Obshchestvennaya Sluzhba Novostey, 18.10.2021. https://www.osnmedia.ru/politika/llojd-ostin-zayavil-o-pozitsii-ssha-po-otnosheniyu-k-formatu-3-3-na-yuzhnom-kavkaze/

5. Prominent Georgian experts and politicians about «3+3» platform. Caliber.Az, 02.12.2021. https://caliber.az/ru/post/42250/

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Publications

Which formats of regional cooperation formats are preferable for Georgia

photo: holiday.by
30 2022
Irina Dzhorbenadze

Irina Dzhorbenadze | Tbilisi

CISS expert

It is counterproductive for Georgia to stay outside of the regional cooperation format, however, participation in the «3+3» platform initiated by the Presidents of Turkey and Azerbaijan and supported by Russia is unacceptable for this country at the current stage. Remember that according to the proposal of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ilham Aliyev the group of 6 countries should include three states of the South Caucasus Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia plus Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Why does Tbilisi have certain fears of participating in the «3+3» format

Let us remind here that after the Second Karabakh War finished by the solid victory of Baku, Ankara proposed implementation of the new format for the post-war interaction in the South Caucasus via the Six-Party Regional Cooperation Platform uniting Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Russia and Iran. According to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his proposal was supported by Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, and Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation.

From the very beginning, Russia welcomed this initiative and got actively engaged in its practical implementation.  Thus, the first meeting of the platform of the six countries took place in Moscow in December 2021. It was co-chaired by Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs Andrey Rudenko (Russia), Vahe Gevorgyan (Armenia), Khalaf Khalafov (Azerbaijan), Sedat nal  (Turkey), as well as the General Director of the EAEU Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran Alireza Haghighian. Tbilisi did not send its representatives to this meeting. However, all the participants expressed their interest in engaging Georgia and agreed that the «door» remains open for this country. [1]

According to the RF Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the participants of the meeting discussed the prospects of developing comprehensive regional cooperation: «It was agreed to focus the platform on practical issues interesting for all the participants. Among them measures to improve mutual trust, interaction in trade, economic, transportation, cultural and humanitarian spheres, counteracting common challenges and threats». [2]

At first, David Zalkaliani, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia at that time, diplomatically commented the invitation to participate without saying a firm «yes» or «no». According to his words, «at this stage he was not seeing the possibility to participate in any new regional format together with Russia». [3] Nevertheless, there was a scandal the Georgian opposition politicians and the pro-Western expert community attacked the Minister for «betrayal» of the European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia immediately released a statement claiming that the Minister «was not understood properly». The emotions were laid to rest, however, if this topic is raised again and Georgia will be mentioned with respect to its unwillingness to participate in «3+3» platform, the scandal will break out again and on a much bigger scale (the reasons will be described further below).

The reasons for Tbilisi not joining the «3+3» platform at the moment are obvious. Firstly, because Russia was invited, and Georgia does not have diplomatic relations with Russia they were cut off after Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In addition, Russian military bases remain in these territories. This is why Georgia refused to participate in the proposed six-sided format. Even though such step could contribute to normalizing the relations between Georgia and Russia to that or another extent.

Let us remark here that the President of Azerbaijan showed understanding of the fact that Georgia was not ready so far to support the platform because of not having diplomatic relations with Russia and called for respect of the position of the Georgian government. «However, despite of that, the relations between the countries of the region are very important for regional cooperation, assuring regional stability and mitigating the risk of war», Ilham Aliyev emphasized.

Secondly, the West was not invited to participate in the new platform, so if the Georgian authorities join the «3+3» format, they automatically will be labelled as the «Kremlin agents» once again and accused of deviating from the European and Euro-Atlantic course. Right now, this is extremely untimely for the Georgian politicians who are now in power, because even without that they are constantly blamed in flowing the interests of Moscow with and without a reason.

Thirdly, the collective West, and in particular the United States, which Tbilisi constantly is forced to look back at, will not approve of Georgia being within one single format not only with Russia, but with Iran as well. Lloyd Austin, the chief of Pentagon, made a very representative statement during his visit to Tbilisi: he emphasized that the US had negative attitude to Georgias participation in the «3+3» format against the background of the agreement on military cooperation between the USA and Georgia signed during this visit. [4]

And yet, opinions differ

According to Valery Chechelashvili, a diplomat and a political analyst, «the «3+3» format is not only about the pluses, but rather about the minuses minus the US and the EU. But they are our strategic partners, so it does not make sense for Georgia to participate in such formats without Washington and Brussels». On top of that, Russia and Iran both are under severe international sanctions, respectively, they «cannot contribute positively into forming the regional stability». [5]

Let us note that the above listed opinion is the most common for the Georgian body politic and expert community. However, there is a different point of view: the political analyst Arno Khiderbegishvili believes that participation in the group of 6 countries has high potential for Georgia, in particular from the standpoint of transportation, energy-related projects, receiving «huge economic and political dividends».

Between the West, Russia and Turkey

Today, Tbilisi has to maneuver. Why? Georgia has to take the position of the West into account, to keep balance in its relations with Russia facing pressure on behalf of Turkey in the context of membership in the so far vague configuration of the platform, while it still unclear, what power center will be dominating when the «3+3» format comes into reality. So far, this has not happened due to the continuing contradictions between Armenia and Azerbaijan and periodically between Iran and Azerbaijan.

However, as we mentioned above, it is extremely undesirable for Georgia to stay outside the regional format, even though it does not have problems collaborating with the potential members of the future platform (including the RF) on a bilateral basis in transportation and logistics, trade and economy, and in other spheres. Moreover, Georgia did not join the economic sanctions against Russia imposed by the European Union, the USA and a number of other countries provoking the displeasure of the West and of the radical opposition at home. However, if the platform of the five countries comes into being in the foreseeable future, and the transportation routes in this area are augmented (e.g., 75% of Armenias export currently goes via Georgian territory, but then it will be re-routed to Russia, and from there to other countries via Azerbaijan), the budget revenues will decrease significantly for Georgia, as it will lose part of its transit functions.

In pursuit of the «happy mean»

As for the officials, the Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili proposed his personal initiative of Peaceful Neighborhood. Its objective was claimed as restitution of trust between the neighboring countries and enhancement of the Georgias role as the mediator. According to Garibashvili, Tbilisi proposes to establish the regional platform for informal dialogue between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

It means Georgia strives to find the «happy mean» in the regional integration context excluding both its Western allies and Russia. This will allow the country not to fence off regional formats, at the same time avoiding the American and European suspicions of participating in the geopolitical project in favor of Russia, Turkey and/or Iran.

However, the participation of Russia (maybe indirect via the vague regional format) is still present, especially if we take into account that cargoes from Russia are transported via Georgian territory to Turkey, Armenia and back. Nobody cancelled the project of laying the power transfer lines Russia Georgia Armenia Iran. Let us also remember that Azerbaijan without any official platform exports oil and gas to Turkey via Georgian territory (Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan and Baku Tbilisi Erzurum pipelines), and the gas pipeline from Russia to Armenia also runs through the same territory.

Probably, the attractiveness of Georgias participation in the group of 6 countries may be in assuring the regional security and creating the environment excluding the acts of the parties contradicting with the interests of one another. But again, the impeding factor here (even leaving aside the concerns of the West) is the situation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Do no harm to Georgia: this is important for the group of five countries

Basically, non-participation of Georgia in the «3+3» platform, its transformation from the group of six into the group of five countries will not create noticeable problems for the regional integration and will not give birth to any difficulties for its sustainability. However, this will be the case only if radical opposition fully controlled by the West unhappy with the current Georgina government does not come into power.

By the way, the economic interaction issues will be part of the agenda for the 9th meeting of the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan scheduled for the near future in Baku. In particular, the parties intend to especially focus on increasing the throughput capacity of the railway Baku Tbilisi Kars and on developing the Europe Asia transportation corridor.

Let us emphasize once again that today the attempts to add Georgia to the «3+3» platform initiated by Ankara and Baku may cause serious turmoil in the domestic situation in Georgia. The revival of the discussion about Georgia joining the group of six countries will provide a reason for the West and for the radical opposition to even stronger unwinding of the anti-government sentiment. Today the Western «partners» in Georgia already call for the regime change using such terms as «de-tycoonization» and «de-bidzinization» (meaning the billionaire Bidzin Ivanishvili, who is still believed to be the shadowy ruler of the country and the «Kremlins protégé»).

So far, the Georgian authorities withstand the onslaught of the West irritated by the fact that Tbilisi is trying not to challenge Moscow and refuses to open the «Second Front» in terms of the sanctions. Sometimes, Georgia even «huffs» moderately, without violating the diplomatic limits. However, the very fact of Tbilisi daring for this makes the Wets more and more concerned, so respectively it doubles its efforts to change the existing regime in Georgia.

In short, it seems feasible today to «forget» in a certain sense about Georgias participation in the «3+3» platform because the excessively active attempts to persuade it may cause nothing but harm. Baku and Yerevan should rather think about their own participation in the exclusively South-Caucasian platform (especially given the fact that Armenia has not finalized yet its participation in the group of six and  looks back on the opinion of the West, and Iran is hesitant), so that neither party is forced to search for the balance in the relations. Of course, the group of three may develop and start functioning only if the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are settled finally. 

The trilateral format of regional cooperation may be autonomous and may be interacting with the group of five countries in parallel, so these two formats may supplement one another without prejudicing the Georgian interests.

1. «3+3» platform for South Caucasus is functioning as a practical format the RF Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sputnik Armenia, 27.12.2021. https://ru.armeniasputnik.am/20211227/platforma-33-po-yuzhnomu-kavkazu-funktsioniruet-kak-pragmatichnyy-format---mid-rf-36899597.html

2. «3+2» net of Georgia: Moscow launched the platform in South Caucasus . Eadaily.com, 10.12.2021. https://eadaily.com/ru/news/2021/12/10/3-2-za-vychetom-gruzii-moskva-zapustila-platformu-na-yuzhnom-kavkaze

3. «3+3» platform: more questions than answers. Sputnik Azerbaijan, 02.11.2021. https://az-sputniknews-ru.turbopages.org/turbo/az.sputniknews.ru/s/20211102/platforma-33--voprosov-bolshe-chem-otvetov-434787525.html

4. Lloyd Austin explained the US position on «3+3» format in South Caucasus. Obshchestvennaya Sluzhba Novostey, 18.10.2021. https://www.osnmedia.ru/politika/llojd-ostin-zayavil-o-pozitsii-ssha-po-otnosheniyu-k-formatu-3-3-na-yuzhnom-kavkaze/

5. Prominent Georgian experts and politicians about «3+3» platform. Caliber.Az, 02.12.2021. https://caliber.az/ru/post/42250/