Take Aways from Tbilisi’s Silk Road Forum: Caucasus Lean into Regional Connectivity
Author: Nicholas Castillo
Nov 7, 2023
Over 2,000 representatives from over 60 countries gathered in Tbilisi, Georgia, over October 26-27 for the fourth Silk Road Forum. The forum, the first since 2019, brought together political and business leaders invested in the growing “Middle Corridor,” a loosely defined trade route linking East and West that runs through the South Caucasus region. With increased foreign attention now on the Caspian region, whether diplomatic or economic, the participants at the forum showcased a vision for the future based on regional cooperation and integration.
Pashinyan at the Silk Road Forum: Commitment to Peace Deal and "Crossroads of Peace” Initiative
Many of the headlines that emerged from the Silk Road Forum related to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, whose presence at the forum came amidst continued talks and speculation related to a final peace agreement normalizing relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Recent weeks have seen the negotiation process hit obstacles, with Azerbaijan and Armenia declining to attend a number of summits where Prime Minister Pashinyan would have been able to speak directly with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The most significant diplomatic meeting yet, the multi-lateral conference between the foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and Turkey, in Tehran this October did not involve heads of state or government. But Pashinyan did attend this forum, where he was able to speak on the sidelines with Azerbaijani Prime Minister Ali Asadov. Furthermore, during his speech, Prime Minister Pashinyan confirmed Azerbaijan and Armenia "are currently working on a draft peace and relations settlement agreement” and stated his hope that “this process will be successfully completed in the coming months.” He also referenced his desire that opening the border for trade with Azerbaijan would lead to opening the border with Turkey.
Pashinyan’s drive for regional integration was the central theme of his statement to the forum. He took the opportunity to speak in general terms about the benefits of East-West trade running through the South Caucasus, but also pressed his specific “Crossroads of Peace” initiative. The “essence” of the initiative as Pashinyan described it is the “development of communications between Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the Islamic Republic of Iran by means of renovating, building, and operating roads, railways, pipelines, cables, and electricity lines.”
The Prime Minister laid out four principles he hoped would guide the program, including that all infrastructure be under the sovereignty of its host country, that goods crossing borders will be subject to customs controls, infrastructure can be used for both domestic and international purposes, and that infrastructure is used on the basis of “reciprocity and equality.” During his speech, Prime Minister Pashiynan displayed maps that included the re-opening or new construction of rail lines and highways through Armenia connecting its neighbors. The map also depicted the Karabakh region as part of Azerbaijan with no caveats, indicating Pashinyan’s commitment to normalization with Azerbiajan. The Armenian Prime Minister also referenced ambitions to establish a trade route linking Georgia to the Persian Gulf. Pashinyan's focus on sovereignty during his address likely relates to longstanding fears on the part of Armenia that Azerbaijan would force the opening of a transit road along the Zangezur corridor without Armenia border controls.
Source: Azeri Times Description: The Map Presented by Prime Minister Pashinyan Depicting his “Crossroads of Peace” Program.
The “Crossroads of Peace” has taken on a central role in Pashinyan’s recent international visits. It was a major topic of his October 17 speech to the European Parliament, where he described hopes that Armenia could become a regional hub for not only goods, but infrastructure including electrical lines, as well as oil and gas pipelines. Aside from the practical benefits of the initiative, it is possible that Prime Minister Pashinyan may be attempting to fend off domestic or foreign critics since the defeat suffered by Armenian separatists in September by demonstrating the benefits of a peace agreement.
The initiative, however, faces a number of obstacles. For one, Azerbaijan has already moved toward the construction of a transportation route through Iran in order to reach the Nakhichevan exclave of Azerbaijan. Such a route not only connects Azerbaijan to its exclave but link the larger Azerbaijani territory to Turkey. Additionally, Georgia may oppose the initiative since it has achieved a near monopoly on East-West transit at the moment. Therefore, Armenia’s efforts to pitch itself as the regional transportation hub may have arrived too late. Relations between Armenia and its neighbors likewise continue to remain uneasy. Even as normalization talks continue, Pashinyan has repeatedly claimed that Azerbaijan represents a security threat to Armenia and accused Baku of ethnically cleansing the Karabakh region.
No Strong European Union Presence at the Forum
Another noteworthy aspect of the forum was the comparatively minimal European Union attendance. Of the guest speakers, only two, Adrian Foghis of the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure of Romania and Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary, represented a European Union country. Only two panelists represented EU institutions, with one representing the European Invesment Bank and another representing the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications. Otherwise, there was a heavy international presence. Among the speakers were several government representatives from the South Caucasus countries, Central Asia, and Turkey, as well as journalists, business leaders, and representatives of intergovernmental organizations. A few other government speakers included representatives of the United States, Persian Gulf Kingdoms, Serbia and Montenegro.
This represents a downgrading of EU involvement since the last Silk Road Forum, held in 2019. That year, a EU delegation was led by Lawrence Meredith, Director for the EU's Eastern Neighborhood & Institution Building. Even then however, onlookers noted that the European Union delegation was comparatively small next to delegations comprised of senior officials from China, Turkey, or other post-Soviet states. The lack of involvement is inconsistent with the developing European economic interest in the South Caucasus. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Middle Corridor trade route, which runs through the South Caucasus, has taken on an increased role in transporting goods and resources to Europe, especially in terms of energy resources.
It is possible that the absence of a strong EU presence was unintentional. It also may be the case that EU officials overlooked the Silk Road forum given that its own, Global Gateway Forum took place a day before the event in Tbilisi, and may have attracted most EU attention. The recent Global Gateway Forum announced many new global investments with the aim of strengthening international trade. The investments including millions of Euros earmarked for education and infrastructure in Georgia and Armenia, and Tajikistan, illustrating that Brussels does have an interest in the Caspian region.
Silk Road Forum Builds on Push for Connectivity
Generally speaking, the Silk Road Forum was another example of growing regional connectivity linking the Black Sea region, South Caucasus, and Central Asia. Speakers, including the prime ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, all delivered remarks noting the increased cooperation between countries in the region and the great potential for the South Caucasus region to emerge as a hub for goods and resources. The forum showed documentary films, celebrating the role of oil and gas infrastructure linking countries of the region to larger markets. During his opening speech to the forum Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili reaffirmed his nation’s commitment to the Middle Corridor, fostering peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and lauded the results of free trade while claiming that discussions over free trade agreements between his country, Israel and South Korea are ongoing. Garibashvili later held meetings with the prime ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Montenegro.
In terms of immediate results, likely the most noteworthy development at the forum was the establishment of a joint rail company between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. The three countries had already moved towards greater cooperation in recent years, with Kazakhstan shifting to rely more on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, following a worsening of Kazakh-Russian relations due to the invasion of Ukraine, as well as the establishment of a joint logistics company between Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in June of 2023. The recent announcement at the Silk Road Forum will add to trans-Caspian cooperation, demonstrating the benefits of such a forum. Participants also signed on to a handful of smaller agreements, such as a memorandum on seafarers’ certificates between Georgia and Qatar, amendments to a previous Middle Corridor agreement between Georgia and Kazakhstan, and agreements relating to the construction of a Tbilisi-Azerbaijani Professional State Drama Theater.
Considering Pashinyan’s role at the forum, and the announcement of a Georgia-Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan joint rail company, the Silk Road Forum is demonstrating an ability to become a center of diplomacy and progress for the Caspian region. As the governments of the South Caucasus and Central Asia continue to push towards greater cooperation, especially along the Middle Corridor, the forum will likely grow in importance in terms of connecting Caspian countries to one another, but also in terms of forging links with countries outside the region.