Armenia should take additional steps to overcome its regional isolation and boost its economic cooperation with the outside world, otherwise in the long-term it would be more and more difficult for it to counter Azerbaijani and Turkish pressure, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed.
On October 30, 2017 an opening ceremony for the newly constructed Baku - Tbilisi - Kars railway link was held in Baku. The Presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as the Prime Ministers of Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and representatives of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, participated in the ceremony. The BTK was hailed as one of the shortest routes connecting Asia with Europe, with clear eye for it to be included in China's "One Belt - One Road" project. Chinese goods may pass through Kazakhstan by rail, reach Azerbaijan through the Caspian Sea, and be delivered to Turkey via BTK, with Europe and/or the Middle East as a final destination.
Just two days after the BTK opening ceremony the Azerbaijani, Iranian and Russian Presidents met in Tehran for their second trilateral summit. This new format was launched in August 2016 with the trilateral meeting held in Baku. One of the key issues discussed during both summits was the launch of a "North - South" transportation corridor to connect India's Mumbai with Helsinki, via Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia. The key point in this project is the connection of the Iranian and Azerbaijan railroads. Just some months ago Azerbaijani and Iranian border towns that share the same name of Astara were connected by railway and the only missing link is the Rasht - Astara railway in Iran. Negotiations are underway between Iran and Azerbaijan to receive an Azerbaijani loan of 500 million USD to start the construction of Rasht - Astara line. Given the complicated terrain, the railroad will be ready for use no sooner than late 2019.
BTK will certainly face tough competition in its efforts to be included in OBOR. Recently China has launched a direct railroad connection to Europe via Kazakhstan and Russia. Another possible route for China-EU transit may be the China - Kazakhstan - Azerbaijan -Georgian Black Sea ports connection. Georgia is planning to launch the construction of a new deep-sea port in Anaklia before the end of 2017. Once finished, the new port will be Georgia's largest - dwarfing the existing ports in the Black Sea cities of Poti and Batumi. The Georgian authorities are actively making efforts to include Anaklia in OBOR, thus making Georgia a key transit point for China-EU trade. As for China -Middle East transit, the China - Kazakhstan - Turkmenistan - Iran railroad was opened in February 2016 giving China direct railroad access to Iran and Persian Gulf. Another way to reach Middle East is via Iran - China sea transit which has proved its effectiveness given the large-scale oil shipments from Iran to China.
Nevertheless, the opening of BTK, and Azerbaijan's growing involvement in the "North - South" corridor are assets strengthening Azerbaijan's geostrategic importance. Given the current deadlock in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict resolution process the above mentioned developments are raising concerns in Armenia. Since the mid -1990s Azerbaijan has pursued a strategy of coercion towards Armenia. The key element in this strategy is the depletion of Armenia's human and economic resources. Azerbaijan uses economic blockade, isolation from regional projects as well as repeated low scale military operations, both along the Karabakh line of contact and the Armenia - Azerbaijan international border, to put pressure on Armenian society and foster immigration. Armenia is excluded from both BTK and North - South transport corridor. The connection of Iran - Azerbaijan - Russia railway will effectively put an end to any tangible perspectives for the Iran - Armenia railroad project implementation. BTK will further strengthen Azerbaijani and Turkish economic influence in Georgia, thus potentially encircling Armenia from the North. Given the existence of multimillion Azeri speaking population in Iran's regions bordering Armenia, as well as strong positions of Azerbaijan and Turkey in Georgia, Armenia's two routes towards the external world - through Georgia and Iran, can not be viewed as being secure
Another reason for Armenia's concern is the growing cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Middle East. Given the existence of the Azerbaijan - Iran - Turkey, and the Azerbaijan - Iran - Russia trilateral formats of partnership, as well as Turkey's and Azerbaijan's efforts to launch new Azerbaijan - Russia - Turkey format of cooperation, Armenia is concerned not to become a simple pawn in the geopolitical transformations of the region.
One viable option for Armenia would be to give impetus to the Iran - Armenia - Georgia cooperation. Currently the main component in this partnership is energy. In the next year a new high voltage transmission lines will connect Armenia with both Iran and Georgia, thus making possible electricity trade between three nations. Another good opportunity here is to launch an Iran - Europe transit route via Armenia and the Georgian Black Sea ports. The negotiations on the establishment of a "Persian Gulf - Black Sea" transport and transit corridor with the involvement of Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Bulgaria and Greece are moving forward, and most probably an agreement on this will be signed in Spring 2018. Given the fact that North - South corridor linking Iran with Russia and Europe will pass through Azerbaijan, Iran is not interested in developing transit via Georgia to Europe again through Azerbaijan, preferring Armenia this time. However, on its part, Armenia should accelerate the implementation of the new North - South highway project which will connect Georgia with Armenia, and Armenia with Iran facilitating transit via Armenia. The construction of new highway was launched in 2012 but only 20 percent of work is finished, which does not bode well for Armenia's ambitions to be involved in regional transit projects.
Another opportunity for Armenia is the fostering of relations with the EU, and in this regard the upcoming signature of the Armenia - EU Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement may play a key role in the long term
Nevertheless, Armenia should take additional steps to overcome its regional isolation and boost its economic cooperation with the outside world, otherwise in the long-term it would be more and more difficult for it to counter Azerbaijani and Turkish pressure.
Source: Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is the Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia. He contributed this op-ed to commonspace.eu
photo: The inauguration ceremony of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway link in Baku on 30 October 2017.