THE TRILATERAL FORMAT: A VEHICLE FOR REGIONAL STABILITY?

Today's Zaman, Turkey
Feb 21 2014

ZAUR SHIRIYEV

The recent meeting of the Azerbaijani, Georgian and Turkish foreign
ministers in the northern Azerbaijani city of Ganja on Feb. 18-19
was their third trilateral-format meeting.

Previous ones were held in Trabzon and Batumi in 2012. On Feb. 17,
ahead of the Ganja meeting, Baku hosted an academic discussion
on the current status and future of the trilateral format, titled
"Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey: Trilateral Alliance and the Future of
Regional Politics."

Following the Ganja meeting, the three foreign ministers issued a
common declaration on the results of their discussions. Taken together
with the outcomes of the academic discussion in Baku, it is timely
to analyze the current state of the trilateral arrangement and what
is required for its further development.

The messages of the 'Ganja declaration'

The official statement issued in Ganja sheds light on the future
institutionalization of the trilateral "sectoral" cooperation.

First of all, the joint declaration expressed readiness to launch
preparations for a summit that includes the presidents of Azerbaijan,
Georgia and Turkey. One can argue that this is nothing new, that the
countries' presidents have met numerous times, particularly during
international events. But this message carries a number of key
implications at the regional level. The presidential meeting would
demonstrate top-level -- even higher than the foreign ministers --
desire to strengthen and institutionalize the trilateral format.

Before this most recent statement, there had been concerns that while
the foreign ministries might be ready for trilateral cooperation, it
was uncertain whether other government ministries (notably defense
and economy) were on the same page. In this sense, the declaration
sends a strong signal internally as well. The presidential summit
would also attract the focus of international observers, and this
format for discussion would indicate to regional and international
powers that these three states share common views and are consulting
on regional issues.

Furthermore, the declaration emphasizes the peaceful settlement
of ongoing regional conflicts (Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South
Ossetia) based on respect for state sovereignty, territorial integrity
and the inviolability of internationally recognized borders. This
fundamental message carries over from the trilateral declarations
of the previous two meetings. Still, this issue sometimes creates
concerns -- for example, any statement on opening the Turkish-Armenian
border that is not conditional to the withdrawal of Armenian armed
forces from occupied Azerbaijani territories, or the opening of the
Abkhaz railway by Georgia, which would reduce the effectiveness of
Azerbaijan's economic isolation policy against Armenia. But again,
this recent statement allays such concerns and provides reassurance
that there is still mutual understanding on sensitive issues like
conflict resolution. In this sense, all three sides understand that
bilateral disagreements could serve the interests of third parties.

Finally, and equally as important, the declaration stressed the
enhancement of trilateral sectoral cooperation across other areas such
as media, science and culture. Given the importance of these sectors
in shaping public opinion, they are currently underdeveloped and
under-utilized as tools of engagement. The foreign ministers' specific
mention of these areas in the trilateral statement indicates their
intention to maximize the potential of stronger links. For example,
although Turkey and Azerbaijan enjoy good government relations as well
as good public images at the societal level, the significance of the
media at the bilateral level only began to be better understood after
the launch of the Turkish-Armenian normalization process in 2008-2009.

Especially when misunderstandings arise at the bilateral level, the
media plays an important role. The media can help resolve problems,
but it may also aggravate issues. Without a doubt, current bilateral
Azerbaijani-Georgian and Turkish-Georgian media and academic relations,
especially in the think-tank sector, require development.

This will pave the way for a strong trilateral relationship across
these sectors.

Future challenges

The ongoing institutionalization of the relations between these three
strategic partner countries in a trilateral format demonstrates first
of all that there is no easy recipe for this task, and secondly, that
if it is successfully developed, the Azerbaijan-Georgian-Turkish
strategic format could become a model for other countries in
similar situations. Nonetheless, in order to develop the trilateral
arrangement, bilateral relations in some areas (as mentioned before,
media and science) must first be improved. It is not only media
and science, but also other less-developed areas of cooperation
(including public perceptions of each society, public diplomacy and
people-to-people contact) that need to be enhanced.

In terms of foreign policy and security strategies, there are some
differences in the orientation of the three countries, notably with
regard to the pace and desire of Euro-Atlantic integration. For
Azerbaijan and Georgia, there will be additional future challenges in
relation to the Eurasian Union project. How these states will support
one another and coordinate their strategies could serve to deepen
alliances. This will be of utmost importance to Turkey, especially
with regard to Ankara's future relations with Russia and the EU. For
Tbilisi and Baku, it may be the case that Turkey can still serve
as a model in terms of their European integration paths. Georgia's
relationship with Armenia may remain sensitive for Azerbaijan,
especially in the realm of security cooperation -- for example, if
Tbilisi strengthens its defense cooperation with Yerevan, Baku will
be frustrated and seek to block further cooperation in this area.

Last but not least, common understanding and coordination will be a
crucial element of the future success of the trilateral arrangement.

Moreover, its scope could change significantly, especially if
Armenia changes its position in relation to Azerbaijan's territorial
integrity. Indeed, the Azerbaijani and Turkish leadership have
emphasized that if the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved, Yerevan
could have a place in this arrangement, enabling it to join the
existing regional cooperation. The three countries have developed
energy and transportation projects with effects that will go far
beyond the South Caucasus; this trilateral cooperation can help
stabilize the wider region.

http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist/zaur-shiriyev_340103_the-trilateral-format-a-vehicle-for-regional-stability.html