Georgia's increasing geopolitical importance in the region meant that last month's mass protests in Georgia were closely scrutinised by the international community, writes Nigar Muzaffarova for commonspace.eu. "As political stability is the basic condition of effectively regulated trade deals and economic activity, stakeholders are naturally imperilled by the unrest. Azerbaijan, the main investor in Georgia’s energy and transport infrastructure, has had its own concerns since the latter bears utmost importance for Baku’s access to global markets," she adds.
Georgia witnessed large-scale protests in early March when the ruling Georgian Dream party tried to push the so-called “foreign agents” law through parliament, which allegedly envisaged an authoritarian turn in domestic politics. Many Georgians viewed the labelling of civil society organisations funded from abroad as “foreign agents” as a major setback in the country’s EU integration process, not least because it would further derail the ongoing negotiations over Tbilisi’s fulfilment of 12 conditions to move towards obtaining candidate status.
Amid growing domestic backlash and external pressure, the Georgian Dream government backtracked and rejected the law in parliament. However, it appears that political polarisation and uncertainty will linger on for the next few months which bodes well neither for ordinary Georgians nor Tbilisi’s partners in the wider neighbourhood.
Georgia’s increasing geopolitical importance in the region made the international community scrutinise the upheaval closely, especially those inspired by its strategic role as a pivotal transit link between the East and West against the background of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As political stability is the basic condition of effectively regulated trade deals and economic activity, stakeholders are naturally imperilled by the unrest.
Azerbaijan, the main investor in Georgia’s energy and transport infrastructure, has had its own concerns since the latter bears utmost importance for Baku’s access to global markets. Georgia’s destabilisation in the context of the war in Ukraine would be a strategic nightmare for Azerbaijan’s currently strong regional positioning. Things can change quickly in the South Caucasus, and Baku likely finds narratives of a possible “second front” circulating in Georgia concerning.
Cooperation between Tbilisi and Baku on infrastructure is well-established and growing
Previously, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline passing through Georgia was nearly hit by Russian bombs during the Russia-Georgia war in 2008. The pipeline was also out of action for some time on the eve of that war allegedly due to a Russian cyberattack that cost Azerbaijan millions of dollars. Most recently, the pipeline stopped operations after two massive earthquakes hit southeastern Türkiye on 6 February.
Baku already has a well-established pipeline infrastructure to ship its oil and gas resources to Türkiye and then to European markets through Georgian territory. If Western countries were not interested in the further improvement of this route before February 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine they came to appreciate its strategic importance in their fight against Moscow’s weaponisation of gas supplies.
In July, the EU signed a memorandum of understanding with Azerbaijan on a strategic energy partnership that envisions doubling Baku’s gas exports to Europe in the next five years. According to President Aliyev, Azerbaijan plans to increase its gas supplies to over 24 billion cubic metres (bcm) in 2023, of which at least 12 bcm will flow to Europe. Baku expects Brussels to help to finance the improvement of pipeline capacity in Georgia and Türkiye if it is serious about eliminating its gas dependence on Russia in the long term.
Another important deal that may reduce European dependence on Russia was reached at the quadrilateral meeting of Azerbaijani, Georgian, Hungarian, and Romanian leaders on 17 December last year. Accordingly, power originating from Azerbaijani renewable energy will be transmitted through Georgia and Romania to Hungary, via a submarine power cable under the Black Sea. Hence, Baku and Tbilisi gain major advantages, as the former establishes its image as a reliable renewable energy partner for the EU and the latter accrues benefits in terms of taxes, renewed infrastructure, and fostered labour market activities.
Georgia is critical for Eurasian land connectivity
Georgia has also long been one of the critical nodes in Eurasian land connectivity, linking its regional economic partners, Azerbaijan and Türkiye, and facilitating rail trade between its global partners, the EU and China. As part of the Middle Corridor that connects China with the EU through Central Asia and the South Caucasus, Tbilisi coordinates its connectivity policy with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Türkiye to ensure the smooth transit of cargo along the route which not only brings economic dividends, but also helps diversify its geopolitical linkages to different power centres.
After Western sanctions crippled the Northern Corridor passing through Russia, the Middle Corridor countries increased their efforts to bolster the soft and hard infrastructure capacity of the route. In that sense, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Türkiye, and Kazakhstan signed an agreement on the establishment of the Middle Corridor joint venture with an aim to eliminate major bottlenecks and attract greater involvement from the EU and China. In November 2022, President Aliyev’s announced an additional $100 million in funding for the Georgian section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway to meet the needs of “a new geopolitical situation”. In previous years, Azerbaijan allocated $775 million in preferential loans to Georgia to build the railroad, which started operations in 2017.
Azerbaijan’s proactive moves to strengthen the transport capacity of the Middle Corridor have not been limited to land routes but extended overseas during 2022. On 24 May, ADY Container launched a feeder vessel service in the Black Sea between the Georgian port of Poti and the Romanian port of Constanta to meet increasing cargo loads over the transit route. Shortly after, in June, the second vessel was set afloat in the Black Sea, linking Batumi port to the port of Constanta.
Still, weak infrastructure in the Black Sea causes delays and congestion, which makes it necessary to have a deep seaport. In this regard, Georgia’s proposed and postponed Anaklia project has been considered a viable choice to further develop freight capacity. Currently, the project's future seems blurry due to political speculations around the project, as the Georgian government put its implementation on hold.
Azerbaijan needs a strong and comprehensive partnership with Georgia, Türkiye, and the EU, to balance Russian and Iranian inroads into the region
Azerbaijan’s concerns about Georgia’s potential destabilisation should further be put into the context of the deteriorating geopolitical environment around its borders. Besides Georgia, Baku’s major military and economic partners, Türkiye and Israel, have also been going through hard times, with domestic protests paralysing both countries’ ability to proactively shape developments in their neighbourhoods. Taking into account how important coordinated moves with these countries have been for Azerbaijan’s independent foreign policy, Baku needs to reflect on this drawback while pushing its agenda either on Karabakh or on other crucial issues.
The situation may look grimmer if one notes Baku’s recently worsening relations with Russia and Iran. Both countries have recently been pursuing an assertive South Caucasus policy which was mostly deleterious to Baku’s interests. In a break with the past, Moscow came to rely more on Tehran in checking Azerbaijan’s independent foreign policy, which led to an escalation of tensions along the state borders. Therefore, Azerbaijan needs a strong and comprehensive partnership with Georgia and Türkiye, and through them with the EU, to balance Russian and Iranian inroads into the region.
Last but not the least, the Georgian Dream government has a history of making attempts at reaching out to Russia by suggesting to buy gas from Gazprom, as it was suggested in 2015 by the then-Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze. Given that Azerbaijan has long been the safe ultimate gas supplier for the Georgian market, these moves triggered certain irritation in Baku back then, so it’s natural to assume Azerbaijan is wary about the ever-existing possibility of the current government’s creeping slide towards Moscow’s orbit.