This holistic project was designed to tie together not only Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgia, but a much larger geographical area with transportation-communication networks. In keeping with this goal, it created an integrated network model reinforced with logistics centers bringing together railways/highways/air and seaports/oil-natural-gas lines with a view to reviving the modern silk road. With the contributions of the private sector and think tanks, this holistic network model was heavily promoted in various countries and regional organizations during the 2010-2014 period. At that time when Turkey took the lead and took initiatives in this area, neither China’s Belt-Road project nor the strategies put forward by the USA or the EU this year were in existence.
Belt-Road and Middle Corridor
Before China put forward the Belt-Road project directly impacting the global landscape with a financial scope of 40 trillion dollars, the main theme of the Third Summit of Heads of States, which was held in Gabala / Azerbaijan on August 16, 2013, of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking Countries, as it was then called, was determined as ‘Transportation Communication Networks/Infrastructure-Connectivity,’ with Turkey’s initiative. Turkey took steps to implement the Turkey and South Caucasus legs of transportation projects to kickstart the envisaged regional network. Marmaray, the Eurasia Tunnel, the third suspension bridge over the Bosphorus were completed, and in 2017 the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project was concluded. Efforts were made for the Kars-Nakhchivan connection; however, no tangible progress was achieved to finalise this project. China, which launched the 17+1 model in 2012 to open the Central and Eastern European countries and the Balkans to Chinese investments in infrastructure projects, keeping its silence until 2013 on the ‘New Silk Road Project’ that covers a much wider geography, took the centerstage almost right after the Gabala Summit. While in Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping placed on the global agenda the Belt-Road project of worldwide implications.
From global strategic competition to competition in connectivity
Although preliminary signals were in place at that time, the strategic rivalry between the USA and China was not at its current level. West-Russia relations were not yet hostage to the tension that exists today. A process that started with Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and continued with the bloody terror acts of ISIS in Syria-Iraq not only resulted in the deepening of the conflict between the West and Russia, but also developed tensions between China and the USA, which started to see China as its main rival. The geopolitical/geostrategic conflict that broke out between these three poles appeared in different forms in various regions. Global competition has also spread to connectivity in transportation-communication-logistics-digitalization. The field of connectivity, which now has a large-scale and economic-commercial aspect as well as a political one, has become the subject of a new bone of contention.
Karabakh knot is being unentangled
At a time when the widespread strategic conflict was ongoing, the “frozen conflict” in the South Caucasus turned into a hot one between Azerbaijan and Armenia in September 2020. At the end of the forty-four-day war, with the support of Turkey, Azerbaijan liberated the lands occupied by Armenia since the 1990s and took Shusha under its control. Even though there are still obstacles to be overcome, the door of a new era that can bring peace, tranquillity, stability and prosperity has thus been opened in the South Caucasus. These developments brought up new opportunities for Turkey and the Turkic world, regional and beyond.
G7 and EU global gateway strategy
Right after the mobilisation started in the South Caucasus in the Autumn of 2020, there was another development of a serious concern for the global agenda, which attracted insufficient attention in Turkey. After seven years of negotiations, the EU signed the Comprehensive Investment Agreement with China. On the other hand, due to the intensifying strategic competition in 2021 and China’s actions targeting some political officials of the EU member states, that bilateral Agreement was suspended in May 2021 as a result of it being not ratified by the European Parliament. The year 2021 has become a stage for efforts and initiatives driven by new and contentious issues in relations between the West and China.
What happened in a year?
It is possible to summarize the cornerstones of the developments in the South Caucasus during the period as of the autumn of 2020 to the present:
- The scope and intensity of the competition between the main actors steering the world economy and having vast military power, has increased. In this competitive environment of a systemic nature, tremors with long-term consequences have taken the scene in a wide area ranging from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific region.
- As volatility was holding the ground a hot conflict emerged between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the South Caucasus, which lasted briefly, but caused consequences on a larger scale. As a result, a new landscape formed in that region preparing the grounds for conflictual as well as overlapping interests of the actors involved in the region and beyond.
- Regional and global actors, including Turkey, have found themselves in a difficult situation. Following the armed conflict, the search for the economic rehabilitation of the region gained momentum.
- The ninth article of the Tripartite Statement, issued at the end of the Russia-Azerbaijan-Armenia Summit held in Moscow on November 10, 2020, stipulates the revival of all transport corridors in the region, especially Zangezur, as well as providing a ceasefire, is, among others, a game-changer. The same provision was confirmed at the tripartite summit also held in Moscow on January 11, 2021.
- President Erdoğan, who attended the Victory Day held in Baku, called on Armenia for a new beginning and invited Armenia to take “bold steps” for regional peace and stability. This call has evolved into the idea of establishing a six-party platform between the regional countries, namely, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Russia and Iran in the Shusha Declaration announced by Turkey and Azerbaijan on June 15, 2021.
- Just before this development, at the G7 Summit Meeting held in England on June 11-13, an initiative called “Build Back Better World” was launched under the leadership of the USA, specifically as an alternative to China’s initiatives and investments within the framework of the Belt-Road project. Accordingly, it is envisaged that an amount exceeding 40 trillion dollars will be allocated by 2035 for the needs of lower-middle-income countries in the fields of health, education, environment, transportation, energy and digitalization, including infrastructure, in order to rejuvenate connectivity on a global scale. In doing so, the USA has amalgamated its Blue Dot Network and the Clean Network initiatives of 2016 under a more ambitious initiative within the G7. The underlying motivation of the U.S. has been to bring development finance under a more comprehensive framework to counterbalance the political-economic influence of China predicted on the Belt-Road project. Again in 2016, the EU, which took a decision to coordinate more effectively its development finance activities reinforced by its various partnerships (2018 EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, Japan and India Connectivity Partnership, ‘Western Balkans,’ Eastern Partnership and Southern Neighborhood Policies) in the following years, publicly announced the outline of the EU Global Gateway Strategy in September 2021, almost in the wake of the June 2021 G7 Summit, and presented an elaborate version of it on December 1.
- Within the framework of this strategy, the EU has undertaken to provide 300 billion Euros of financial resources in the areas agreed upon at the G7 Summit, including but not limited to the infrastructure-transport-communication sectors. 135 billion Euros of this ambitious amount, which will also support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (2030 Agenda), comes from guaranteed investments in the 2021-2027 period (European Fund for Sustainable Development), and 18 billion Euros of it provided by the EU grant funds, and 145 billion Euros is supplied by various finance/development finance instruments within the EU. An important pillar of connectivity is the Three Seas Initiative, launched by Poland-Croatia and supported financially by the USA and the EU. The aim of this project is to cover the Baltics, the Black Sea and Adriatic seas with a multimodal transport-communication network. Turkey should closely monitor developments regarding this project and seriously consider the option of becoming part of it at some stage.
- In the allocation of financial resources, including 2030 and beyond, undertaken by the G7 and the EU dedicated to various sectors; transparency, internationally accepted common standards, rules and regulations will be taken as a basis, and countries respecting the shared values of the Western world will be prioritized. Some groups argue that the US-EU joint investment architecture based on such criteria will have a low chance of success in the face of China’s competition, which does not impose political conditionality on development finance/funds, and that therefore more flexibility should be introduced into the architecture.
- It has now become apparent that one of the main pillars of global competition will be on connectivity. By this token, in addition to the ‘Beijing Plan’ (Belt-Road), which, as it were, harkens back to the Marshall Plan of the USA after World War II, there is now in existence the ‘Global Plan Version 4.0’ the West intends to support. It can be argued that new opportunities for peace, stability, and prosperity have appeared on the horizon both at the national and the regional level for those countries capable of reaping the dividends offered by the current processes toward regional peace and prosperity .
Turkey and the Turkic world again in the middle corridor
How Turkey will identify and see to her national and regional interests in the briader picture outlined above has gained even more importance under present circumstances. It is essential that this process, which may have profound effects on Turkey’s relations with the Caucasus and the Turkic world beyond in a period of ongoing turmoil and instability surrounding her, be managed in a rational, effective and result-oriented manner. In this context, it is possible to summarize some of the main points that come to mind in the first place, as follows:
- It would not be an exaggeration to claim that Turkey is one of the first countries to grasp the importance of connectivity in regional infrastructure-transportation-communication. In this context, starting from 2010, Turkey had developed the Middle Corridor project, which will connect Turkey to Beijing in the eastward direction and London in the westward direction, under the auspices of the public-private sectors, and intensively promoted this vital project in the Turkic world as well as in various countries and organisations during those years.
- The important feature of that project was that it offered a holistic model covering the entire South Caucasus, including Armenia, with transportation-communication-infrastructure-logistics networks. At that time, when a comprehensive presentation on that project was launched, the objective sought by Turkey was not completely fulfilled due to the Karabakh conflict and Russia’s reservations on the Middle Corridor, which would rival the northern transportation line (Northern Corridor) passing through its territory, on the one hand; and would weaken its influence in the South Caucasus and especially over Armenia in the long term, on the other. Under the conditions prevalent at that time, and in line with the scope defined in the integrated multimodal model of connectivity, the aim was to extend the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway to reach Central Asia and connect it to Beijing and beyond on a much shorter route using the seaports of Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan) and Aktau (Kazakhstan). The Middle Corridor was to transform the members of the Turkic world, including Turkey, into a strategic hub embedding various sectors, especially in transportation-communication, with a clear understanding to prioritise Turkey’s interests in the East-West axis. This objective is still relevant and vital in advancing Turkey’s national interests.
- The 2020-2021 period has introduced new opportunities for the full revitalisation of the Middle Corridor. The Karabakh issue, which has been a hornet’s nest for the South Caucasus, has been resolved in practice, even though it is not yet tied to a permanent peace agreement.
- In the current situation, Azerbaijan’s hand is relatively eased, thereby presenting to it to have a broader focus on the Southern Caucasus as a whole. It could now shift its attention to wider economic-commercial prospects, including Armenia, in order to expand the economies of scale in the region. Such an approach is also valid for Turkey despite the still precarious situation in the South Caucus following the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. There exist challenges in reaching a final settlement of the remaining issues and they will take time to come to closure. That said, normalisation of relations in the region is beneficial for Turkey so long as the Turkish leadership maintains the pursuit of regional normalisation as a fundamental goal.
- Another development of the same period is that the Council of Turkic Speaking States, founded by the Nakhchivan Agreement of 2009, evolved into the Organization of Turkic States as per the decision taken at the Leaders Summit held in Istanbul in November 2021. This decision has been taken at a time when the strategic rivalry among the great powers is on the rise. It is undoubtedly important, but not sufficient if not supported by concrete projects to be implemented in the field. Therefore, the future of this Organisation should not remain on paper.
- The first priority of the Organisation of Turkic States should be to turn its attention to projects toward expanding the scope of connectivity. The Middle Corridor project developed under the leadership of Turkey is of priority. It seems that the level of interest in Turkey, as the mastermind behind it, is not at the moment at its height. Nevertheless, the fact is there is a broad and useful acquis focused on that project in the annals of the institutional memory of the Turkish state. Therefore, it behooves the Organisation of Turkic States to hold an extraordinary Leaders Meeting right at the beginning of 2022 and take concrete decisions to further advance this project to the benefit of each member of that Organisation. Turkey should take the lead in this endeavour.
- The part of the Middle Corridor passing through Armenia should also be elaborated. Its focus should not be solely on the Zangezur railway connection (corridor). Another corridor to be opened from the northern territories of Armenia should be contemplated connecting Turkey-Armenia-Azerbaijan and extending to the Turkic world.
- The 3+3 format, which Turkey and Azerbaijan launched in June 2021 for tackling the challenges in the South Caucus, is important but not sufficient. It is equally important that the first meeting under that format was held in Moscow on December 11 to focus on the infrastructure-transport-communication related issues in the region. Be that as it may, attempts to reconcile to the extent possible the interests of the members of this format should be initiated with a view to aligning them to a broader framework should be put into practice. Constructive and creative ways to expand and diversify the scope of particularly financial resources should be explored. Hence, serious efforts should be exerted to benefit from the financial opportunities introduced by the decisions of G7 and the EU.
- It would not be surprising for Russia-Iran-Armenia to prioritise the North-South axis in transportation lines. Therefore Turkey should take her guard, as appropriate, against such an eventuality and calibrate her moves to keep the East-West axis alive on which the Middle Corridor is designed. In this context, the transportation networks between Kars-Nakhchivan and Kars-Gyumri should be brought to the agenda. It should be reckoned that Russia would be willing to maintain control over the Zangezur corridor owing to its Lachin connection. It is, therefore, necessary that lines connecting Kars to Baku and beyond from the northern parts of Armenia without interruption on the East-West axis should be seriously taken into account, and work in this direction should be resumed. Resources should be allocated for the swift completion of the Kars-Edirne passenger-cargo line. For financing this line, initiatives should be taken by Turkey to benefit from the funds of the EU Global Gateway Strategy.
- Working on an updated model adapted to new conditions in the region and beyond with a view to bringing the Middle Corridor back to the global agenda should be initiated without delay. For this, a “Task Force” with limited participation, including public-private sector representatives, should urgently be stood up. The “Task Force” should be empowered to adapt, as necessary, the existing holistic model, on the one hand; and to simultaneously promote the model on a wide geography, on the other.
- It should be foreseen that Russia will want to focus on the North-South axis by drawing Armenia and Iran to its side in the South Caucasus, keeping an eye on China’s moves toward expanding its economic influence in the East-West axis deriving its strength from the Belt-Road project and on the global initiatives announced by the West this year. Russia may also take steps to consolidate its control over the Southern Caucasus components of the Northern Corridor of this axis (i.e. North-South axis) that traverses Russia.
- Considering the wide financial dimension of the Belt-Road project, it should be noted that China has so far avoided making heavy investments in the South Caucasus. During the ongoing strategic rivalry, while prospects heave increased to overcome the Karabakh conflict, a critical crossroads emerged where the interests of the West-Russia-China could intersect at one point and confront at another in terms of connectivity projects in the South Caucasus.
- Under such circumstances, Turkey should prioritise her national interests in her immediate neighbourhood which is a potential candidate for competition focusing on connectivity. While pursuing this goal, the interests of the Turkic world in the region and beyond should also be taken account of. Turkey should be in a position to reconcile conflicting interests in play at that region. This challenging situation makes it essential to demonstrate the ability to strike the right balances by aligning regional priorities with global interests and opportunities on a constructive basis. There exist indeed significant opportunities to make the entire Middle Corridor operational. Once completed in all its components, this could be the project of the century for Turkey. We are right next to a critical nexus. We do not have the luxury of spending time with baseless claims such as ‘eight trillion dollars investment is expected’ for the Middle Corridor unless we nourish it with concrete activities in the field, not to mention the mental and practical preparations as a must in the initial stage. The first step should be taken by adapting the existing model to current circumstances and opportunities without making it the hostage of daily impulses, ideological obsessions and ambitions. To realise this, it is essential that, as in the past, public-private sectors should join hands and make the maximum use of opportunities that have come into being.
- It should be a priori assumed that progress can be achieved not with jingoistic slogans, but through concrete projects to be implemented with regional and global financial support. Otherwise, we will have to face the bitter reality of not being able to navigate either from East to West or West to East.
Ambassador Fatih Ceylan, Ankara Policy Center
Prof. Dr. Yelda Ongun, Başkent University Political Science and International Relations Department Chair