3 + 3 = ? A Neighbourhood with Differing Visions: prospects for regional integration in the Caucasus6 min read
Attempts at regional cooperation initiatives are far from new phenomena within the South Caucasus. However, each new format consistently fails to take ground in the region and appears destined to fade into obscurity. In the aftermath of the Second Karabakh War, yet another regional format was put forward: the so-called “3 + 3” model. This time the proposed regional format takes shape in a six-state platform between the three South Caucasian states — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — and their neighbours, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Can this format beat the odds and manage to succeed? In this fragile region full of complex tensions, differing visions for the future threaten its success.
The war over Nagorno-Karabakh (known as Artsakh in Armenia) in 2020 created a new geopolitical status quo in the South Caucasus. Following the Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement, the shifting dynamics of the conflict created a new window of opportunity for the major players of the region, one that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would not pass by. During a state visit to Baku in December 2020, Erdoğan proposed a possible six-state regional cooperation platform which he described as a “win-win initiative for everyone”. It seems he was not alone in his regional ambitions, as a month later in a joint press conference, Ankara and Tehran introduced the “3 + 3” model, which seeks to unblock economic and transport ties across the South Caucasus. With an initial “3 + 3” delegation meeting held in Moscow in early December, where does each state stand?
Examining the objectives of this six-state model, the ultimate goal for the major regional powers of Russia, Turkey and Iran appears to be that of regional influence through economic cooperation and trade infrastructure. However, the three players are likely aware that with economic influence often comes greater geopolitical leverage. For Moscow, this format would allow the Kremlin to further its influence in the South Caucasus while avoiding Western intervention. Similarly, Tehran seeks to improve its weak geopolitical position in the region, having remained frozen out of peace processes over Nagorno-Karabakh since the first war. However, it is Ankara who plays the most interesting role in this format. An additional goal may be to replace the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States, which aimed to promote peace over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Established in 1994 after the First Karabakh War, the group has faced harsh critique from Turkey for its handling of the issue. In light of the 2020 war, the Minsk Group has arguably been rendered obsolete, therefore leaving a gap for a new format to serve as the primary peace mediator in the region. However, while this regional format may seem enticing to these three major powers, opinions are mixed among the other three states given the unfavourable power balance that it appears to create.
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia do not necessarily perceive themselves through the lens of a united “South Caucasian” identity. In fact, the concept of the “South Caucasus region” is in and of itself debatable. Despite geographic proximity, each state holds a distinct threat perception that shapes its self-identity and political motivations. Most notably are the long-standing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan who continue to consider each other an “enemy” and remain a long way from true peace. With this in mind, the South Caucasus is better viewed as a neighbourhood, rather than a region due to their differing visions for the future of their nations. While the difference between a region and a neighbourhood may seem a trivial distinction, it is key to understanding the difficulties of regional cooperation strategies between the three states. By viewing the states in this framework, we acknowledge that the one-size-fits-all approach ignores the intricacies of each nation.
Looking more closely at where each of the South Caucasian states stands on the six-state model, these differing visions truly come to light. From Azerbaijan’s perspective, the “3 + 3” format is a way to promote peace, stimulate economic growth and build stronger ties with their neighbours — overall, a pretty positive review. This optimistic outlook from the Azeri government is not particularly surprising. Given Turkey was first to propose the format, Azerbaijan was always likely to support the initiative thanks to their longstanding brotherhood. Yet, obstacles still exist. Despite their ongoing partnership, disagreements with Russia over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh have re-emerged. Similarly, recent hostility with Iran — greatly in part due to Israeli support in Baku’s victory in the war in 2020 — could point to future collisions. However, as long as Azerbaijan continues to see Turkey as the “elder brother”, the strength of this partnership will likely override these tensions for now.
Armenia’s stance is less straightforward. The loss of territory following the war remains a difficult reality for the country and tensions with Azerbaijan and Turkey have far from disintegrated. Only last month, clashes between Azeri and Armenian troops flared up at its eastern border, with each side reporting multiple casualties. However, Yerevan seems open to considering the “3 + 3” model. For post-war Armenia, new infrastructure projects could help boost its economy while also working towards peace with its neighbours. In fact, Turkish-Armenian relations have shown glimpses of normalisation in recent months. Earlier last year, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan showed his interest in resuming the work on the Armenian-Turkish railway and highways. Although Pashinyan seems open to negotiations, Yerevan is in a weak position strategically due to the country’s heavy reliance on Russia for both economic and security support, as well as its recent loss in the Second Karabakh War. For the six-state format to work in Armenia’s favour, Pashinyan will need to remain cautious.
The most obvious obstacle to this regional model taking shape comes from Georgia. In November, Tbilisi announced an official refusal to take part in any regional formats with Russia while the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (known in Georgia as the Tskhinvali region) continues. The government reiterated its stance by failing to participate in the “3 + 3” format meeting held in Moscow earlier this month. For Georgia, any cooperation with Russia is viewed as threatening its territorial integrity and signals a shift away from its Euro-Atlantic integration trajectory. However, the incumbent Georgian Dream government demonstrates a more ambiguous approach to its relations with Russia than previous governments. Nonetheless, any move towards cooperation with Moscow would likely be interpreted as an explicitly pro-Russian stance by the public and would likely be far too risky a move for the government. It looks unlikely that Georgia will be joining in on this regional get-together.
For the majority of players, the “3 + 3” platform seeks to normalise relations in the South Caucasus, while helping to increase the influence of the three major powers: Iran, Turkey and Russia. For Baku, the benefits of greater cooperation in trade and transport outweigh its fears of future tensions, particularly given the possibility of a growing influence from its “elder brother”. Similarly, although wary of the format, Yerevan appears to be enticed by the prospect of greater choices of economic ties and possible normalisation, despite the risk of further influence from Turkey on the Karabakh issue. Yet while Azerbaijan and Armenia are open to negotiations, Georgia remains adamantly opposed to cooperation with Russia. Such is evidence of the vital need to understand each state’s unique threat perception and vision for its future development. For now, it seems that three plus three does not necessarily equal six.