Recent global developments, particularly in the Eurasian region, have set the stage for the Azerbaijan-Turkey format to expand and encompass the countries of the Balkan region. While the groundwork for this format was laid years ago, the energy crisis in Europe following Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and the resulting shifts in trade, transportation, and logistics routes have further highlighted the need for the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Balkan platform.
First, let’s examine the evolution of this platform. Efforts to decrease Europe’s energy dependence on our region’s resources have been reprioritized due to the economic and political interests of the US and Western political and business circles, as well as the newly independent countries, following the breakup of the USSR. In the 1990s, initiatives to transport hydrocarbon resources from Azerbaijan and, if possible, Central Asian countries to European countries, bypassing Russia and Iran, were strongly supported by the West. However, at that time, there were no concrete plans for energy routes to pass through the Balkan region. The primary goal was to ensure alternative energy routes reached Black Sea ports in the worst case and Mediterranean Sea ports in the best case. This can be easily observed by looking at the destination points of the energy projects implemented through Azerbaijan until 2010.
Initial ideas and attempts to ensure the energy connection of the Balkan region with Azerbaijan and Turkey cover the years 2002-2009 and 2008-2013. The current Azerbaijan-Turkey-Balkan format had been brought to the fore with the popular Nabucco energy project in those years. The pipeline project, which would extend from the Turkish-Bulgarian border through the Balkans to Austria, fell apart due to the lack of sufficient support from the European Union and the United States.
Thus, Azerbaijan and Turkey pushed ahead with an energy route through the Balkan region, but with a different path and without sufficient financial support from the West. With two consecutive projects called TANAP and TAP, Azerbaijani gas is directed from Turkey to Greece, and from there to Albania and Italy through the Adriatic Sea, and from Greece to Bulgaria via another line. As a result, the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Balkan format turned into an energy project that is no longer in words, but in reality.
The role of close cooperation among Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Balkan countries in the energy security of Europe is becoming more active and robust. This energy route, which previously had more symbolic significance due to its size, is gaining serious importance due to the Ukrainian crisis. The negotiations between the European Union and Azerbaijan, as well as with the Central Asian states on increasing gas volumes, show that Brussels now better understands the importance of the project. Consequently, Azerbaijan-Turkey-Balkan cooperation has risen to a historically high level.
These projects also have an effective impact on conflict reduction in the intra-Balkan and Balkans-Turkey fronts. For example, Greece has tried not to sever relations with Azerbaijan, which is a strategic ally of Turkey; Serbia chose the line of cooperation rather than conflict with Turkey, which has close relations with Kosovo; noticeable improvement in the rights of the Turkish-Muslim community living in the Balkan countries.
Here, we observe that although the historical-political factor forms the basis of Turkey-Balkan region relations, Azerbaijan is a new element in this tandem, and Baku appears in this format due to economic – energy, trade, transport projects. In this regard, it should be emphasized that not only the energy lines but also the Middle Corridor, whose relevance is increasing, has brought a new impetus to the cooperation with the Balkan region. After the apparent failure of the Northern Corridor aimed at connecting China’s enormous export potential with Europe through Russia due to Western sanctions, the Middle Corridor has become more active to replace this route through the Balkans.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, built with the political will and investment of official Baku, forms the basis of the Middle Corridor from China to Europe via the Central Asia-Azerbaijan-Turkey route. After Azerbaijan, the corridor branches out through the ports of Georgia and Turkey, as well as overland routes, and ensures the delivery of goods to Europe mainly through the countries of the Balkan region. As a result, Azerbaijan is connected with the Balkan region not only by natural gas, which is still not very large in volume, but also by trade in other merchandise with greater turnover and revenue.
The new geopolitical reality resulting from the victory of Azerbaijan in the Second Karabakh War will add new routes to the relations with the Balkan region. The Zangezur Corridor, which official Baku is trying to implement in a speedy manner, can form a shorter, faster, and alternative route from Azerbaijan to the Balkans and Europe. If Armenia ends up supporting the peace initiatives, it can also be represented on this platform as a transit country in the future. Thanks to the determination of Azerbaijan, the Zangezur Corridor will form an important part of the Middle Corridor and will have a positive effect on the costs, volume, and time of transportation. Against the backdrop of this and other possible political manipulations, Azerbaijan creates new alternatives by diversifying the Zangezur Corridor through Iran and also insures the projects against current and future geopolitical risks.
Last but not least, the Balkan region plays an important role in the economic relations of Azerbaijan itself. The Balkan region is an important transit region for official Baku in bilateral relations with the countries of the European Union, including export-import transactions with Italy, one of the largest trade partners of our country.
It is natural that the relations based on energy and economy give impetus to the rise of political relations. It is no coincidence that the mutual exchange of visits between the leaders of both Azerbaijan and Turkey with the leaders of the Balkan countries has been increasing consistently. Although this can be considered natural for Turkey due to historical reasons, the high level of political contacts between the leaders of Azerbaijan and the Balkans can be explained precisely by the mentioned projects and large-scale perspectives.
Unfortunately, the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Balkan platform, a reality on economic and promising grounds, has not been officially formed yet. Although the aforementioned countries are represented together in energy consortiums, regular contacts are mainly carried out in bilateral formats. However, the current realities make it necessary to establish the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Balkan platform as an official platform.
By Elgun Ibrahimov,
Researcher and PhD Student, Baku Slavic University