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The Clash of Realism and Liberalism: Understanding the Nature of Cooperation on Energy Security between Turkey-Azerbaijan and Georgia

The Clash of Realism and Liberalism: Understanding the Nature of Cooperation on Energy Security between Turkey-Azerbaijan and Georgia

The South Caucasus is home to both important reserves of hydrocarbon resources (oil and gas) and a crossroads of transport routes which connect East and West, as well as North and South. However, despite its geographic significance, as Amanda Paul stated, “the region is one of the most security-challenged and fragmented regions in the world”[1]. It is particularly true that, since the end of the Cold War, the political map of South Caucasus has changed dramatically and the region became a focus point for conflict and competition on the international political agenda.

In addition to its geopolitical significance, it should be kept in mind that the South Caucasus is also often depicted as a main gateway of the energy rich Caspian Region to international markets which makes the region crucial for European energy security. However, with the collapse of Soviet Union, the fragmentation among countries, ethnic and territorial tensions, rising radical ideologies and other security/economy related problems became more visible and these factors created a security vacuum in the region which also threatens regional security. As a result, even though the three independent countries of South Caucasus have convergent interests due to geography, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were not able to build a relationship of trust and stability among themselves. Additionally, as Mithat Çelikpala and Cavid Veliyev’s mentioned “the mutual distrust prevailing in the region has consequently led these countries to pursue cooperation with the actors outside the region”[2]

The creation of a strategic axis 

While the South Caucasus has been associated generally with developments such as militarization, it is also a region characterized by a high level of cooperation and solidarity[3]. On the on hand, similar to the emergence of the axis of Russian Federation-Armenia and Iran, this unstable context led to the creation of a certain cooperation mechanism in the region and for nearby states – mainly between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia (TAG) – in strengthening their national and regional energy security policies. The opening of the Southern Gas Corridor which will transport natural gas from the Azerbaijan Shah Deniz field through Turkey to Italy and the common policies developed on critical energy infrastructure protection could be mentioned among the main examples of cooperation.

In fact, for those who might not be familiar to TAG abbreviation, it should be noted that, rather than having an institutional form, the cooperation among TAG is mostly functional and this triangle could be mentioned as a reflection of a practical relationship based on interdependence built on trade and transport relations[4].

This triangle particularly consolidated after the 2008 Georgian-Russian War and the first trilateral meeting was held among ministries of foreign affairs in 2012 (Batumi Summit of Ministers of Foreign Affairs). While “regional security” stands at the heart of this trilateral relation, it could be claimed that, similar to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, energy trade (mostly fossil fuels) and transport routes are the crucial parts of regional cooperation. In that respect, two giant projects could be mentioned for further clarification – the Southern Gas Corridor and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway (BTK). TANAP (Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline), which is the first part of the Southern Gas Corridor, starts from Azerbaijan and runs through Georgia and Turkey and will be one of the world’s longest pipelines once completed. The BTK project, sometimes mentioned as a part of the revival of the Silk Road, is also mentioned as the vital part of the East-West Transportation Corridor. Even though both projects benefit from political support, they have not been completed due to economic and geopolitical challenges.

As described above, even though energy cooperation is the crucial part of the regional interdependencies, the imbalances between the TAG triangle with regards to their energy dependence or political developments pose serious challenges with regards to consensus building processes for cooperation. In that respect, it seems logical to investigate the main reason behind the motivation of cooperation on energy security. Are the mutual benefits or the pursuit of pure national interests the main trigger of motivation for cooperation? In line with these main arguments, this brief article aims to investigate the nature of cooperation on energy security between the region’s trilateral alliance. 

Cooperation on energy security: A realistic attitude or relative mutual gains? 

Energy security, which requires working in an interdisciplinary approach, has been playing an important role in defining the arcs of global security in the 21st century. Especially after the Industrial Revolution, energy demand has increased sharply and obtaining adequate energy resources became a main political goal of states[5]. Even though “energy” constitutes a crucial part of modern states’ foreign policy agenda, the lack of theoretical or conceptual background makes studying energy security more challenging. There has not been a systematic approach or cumulative literature incorporating energy security into foreign policy and understanding the motivation behind the cooperation on energy policies. Nevertheless, the main stream IR (International Relations) theories could be useful in interpreting the nature of cooperation on energy security between state actors and the specific TAG example.

In general, the early studies of energy politics and energy security were motivated by the national security implications of resource dependence and access to energy resources – particularly oil – was handled as a problem of national security. As a result, the “realist tradition” became the first prominent theory in assessing energy in politics. The key underlying assumptions in the realist theory could be summarized as the access to and control of natural resources as the most critical issue, given that energy is a key ingredient of national power and interest. Also, realists believe that conflict and war over these resources are likely inevitable. While the realists did not handle “energy security” as a specific topic, according to classical realism, governments compete for power. The realist worldview incorporates energy security into national security and argues they are inseparable. In fact, realists argue that the trade of strategic resources is strictly determined by national interests and their theory prioritizes concern for power and survival in the international system[6]. In this sense, “cooperation” seems meaningless in the chaotic nature of international system.

In contrast, “liberal” theory seems to be a better fit for accepting the “cooperation” dimension in security fields, including energy. Liberalism argues that strategic resources like energy should be tradeable if there is mutual benefit for both parties[7]. Neoliberalism especially, which emerged through the formulation of Robert O. Keohane, suggests that the cooperation will occur where there is a common interest and all will benefit from cooperation and multilateralism. In that regard, “energy relations” could be considered as one of the dominant elements of the foreign policy agenda of states. For TAG, the same hypothesis is still valid – that the shared interests in energy triggered cooperation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Similar to energy security, the divergence between realists and liberals could be described in relation to pipeline politics as well. While liberals believe that pipelines are facilitating cooperation by reinforcing mutual gains from energy interdependence, realists are arguing that pipelines are just the instruments at the hand of governments seeking to exploit their energy reserves to further political goals by locking in dependencies[8]. It could be claimed that while realists are insisting on a “zero-sum game” when it comes to energy resources, liberals are concerned with absolute gains.

The notion of “interdependence” should be mentioned for TAG’s case, since it has a critical role in liberal theory as well. The central logic of most conflict studies assigns interdependence a deterrent role, by being a source of opportunity costs and direct costs for the use of military force which discourages overt aggression. It seems acceptable to talk about interdependence in energy relations which is particularly relevant to the issue of energy security as well. For example, the EU-Russian energy partnership is one of the well-known examples of “interdependence” as a determinant of energy security between two actors. However, the interdependence phenomenon should not be perceived as an exclusively positive phenomenon and should not be defined strictly in terms of “evenly balanced”. In other words, the asymmetries in dependencies influence the relations. For instance, in the Russia-EU energy case, Russia seems to be the less dependent actor and could use its position as a source of power within the EU[9]. Besides, when interdependence theory for understanding the energy relations is addressed, it should be clarified whether the nature of this relation causes a symmetrical or an asymmetrical interdependence. 

Differences create unity… 

Energy security has become a hot topic for academia and policy makers. However, there is no universally agreed definition on energy security and it also differs widely between nations[10]. In that sense, in order to understand what lies behind the motivation for cooperation in energy security, the different perceptions of states concerning their energy security circumstances and resulting policies should be taken into account.

In fact, energy security perception within TAG differs significantly but this difference promotes their cooperation and interdependence in the energy field significantly. For Turkey, the biggest concern is to fulfil the growing gap between the country’s energy supply and demand. Additionally, as a rapidly growing economy, Turkey aims to ensure the diversification of sources and suppliers as well as transport routes. Particularly, rapidly growing demand for natural gas is the greatest concern, since it is expected that Turkey’s natural gas demand could reach 73-75 bcm by 2030.[11]

For Azerbaijan, while the country has been known for the presence of oil since ancient times, Baku’s oil and natural gas has become, post-independence, not only a source of income and status, but also a subject of struggle among major powers[12]. As a result, energy policy stands at the heart of the country’s vision that, as an energy rich country, Azerbaijan’s political and economic livelihood is directly related to the stable export of its oil and gas to world markets. In general, reaching international energy markets through a secure and economic route and using the energy card in balancing its foreign policy seems to be one of the strongest determinants of Azerbaijan’s energy policy. In 2013, the World Energy Congress in Daegu, South Korea, advanced the idea that energy security involves a trilemma of affordability, accessibility and sustainability of energy which impacts both consumers and producers from the micro level to that of states and blocs.

For Georgia, energy security is designated a key component for national security and a basic national interest. More importantly, having no significant oil and gas reserves, energy transit through Georgia is widely seen as a way of attracting more international interest in supporting the country’s political stability and its overall security and integrity[13]. Nevertheless, “energy transit” is a major component of state security for Georgia and the country has a prominent role especially in preserving the security of critical energy infrastructures. In sum, it could be argued that due to political, energy security and economic reasons, Georgia is vitally interested in further development of energy transit routes over its territory[14].

Due to the different perceptions on energy security of these three states, it could be argued their policies seem complementary rather than generating a conflicting and competitive dynamic. The nuances and different natural circumstances create a favourable incentive for cooperating in the field of energy. Two main factors could explain the main motivation beyond the energy cooperation: mutual benefits and interdependency.

For example, for Azerbaijan, as a landlocked state and an energy supplier (with regards to oil and gas), energy policies should be based on rational choices and mutual gains. It should be again highlighted that landlocked states like Azerbaijan have much less scope for manoeuvrability and narrower policy options than their counterparts[15]. Thus, developing partnerships with its multiple neighbours, investing in cross-border pipeline projects, focusing on energy investment in numerous foreign countries appear naturally as priorities on the country’s energy policy agenda.

Turkey, on the other hand, is not a landlocked state and possesses significant geopolitical advantages to be used in its energy policies and strategies, being already a transit point for 10% of the global oil trade. However, the country does not possess any indigenous resources and she is increasingly faced with a growing energy demand for fossil fuels. Thus, importing the energy from the most secure supplier while minimizing costs is the cornerstone of its national energy policy. Similar to the Ukrainian case, Georgia shall preserve its reputation as a “reliable transit” country and be proactive in protecting the continuous flow of energy.

Finally, it seems clear that cooperating on energy security is not a “zero sum game” and offers various mutual political/economic gains for the South Caucasus region. Besides, with the aim of preserving the mutual gains from energy trade, TAG seems to continue to cooperate on energy security and critical energy infrastructure protection policies. 

A New Step for Energy Cooperation: Southern Gas Corridor

Kaynak: EurActiv 

On the way of “path dependence” 

Finally, it could be argued that the “energy period” and “cooperation on energy” in South Caucasus has opened a new period for consolidating trilateral relations in the region and the relationship among TAG has acquired a new characteristic which could be best described as “mutual interdependence” or “path dependence”[16]. The extensive mutual energy projects like the Southern Gas Corridor will create significant economic and geostrategic added value and promote new levels of interdependence for regional players, incentivizing positive behaviour to avoid upsetting the basis for the new wealth and influence. In that respect, reversing the trend of cooperation will no longer seem desirable or even feasible. Nevertheless, despite the solid basis constructed on the energy issue, the institutionalization and formalization of diplomatic relations and technical cooperation seems to be a necessary pre-condition and driving force to sustain the regional cooperation in the future.


[1] Amanda Paul, “the EU and the South Caucasus-Time for a Stocktake”, The South Caucasus Between Integration and Fragmentation”, SAM, 2015

[2] Mitat Çelikpala and Cavid Veliyev, “Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey: An Example of a Successful Regional Cooperation”, Center for International and European Studies, November 2015

[3] Javid Veliyev, “Azerbaijan-Georgia and Turkey: The Main Features of Cooperation”, Caucasus International, Vol.5, No.3, Winter 2015

[4] Javid Veliyev, ibid                                         

[5] Ilgar Gurbanov, “Energy Security Dimension in Foreign Policy”, Strategic Outlook, Access:

[6] Ekaterina Svyatets, ibid., p. 9

[7] Ekaterina Svyatets, ibid., p. 13

[8] Tolga Demiryol, “Does Economic Interdependence Promote Political Cooperation: Political Economy of Russian-Turkish Energy Relation”, ECPR General Conference, 2013, p.9

[9] Henry Helen, “The EU’s Energy Security Dilemma with Russia”, Polis Journal, Vol.4, 2014, p. 31

[10] Henryk Faas, Francesco Gracceva, Gianluca Fulli, Marcelo Masera, ‘European Security: A European Perspective’, A. Gheorghe and L. Muresan (eds.), Energy Security: International and Local Issues, Theoretical Perspectives, and Critical Energy Infrastructures, 2011, Springer, pp.10

[11] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, “Turkey’s Energy Profile and Strategy”, Access:

[12] Rovshan İbrahimov, “Azerbaijan’s Energy History and Policy from Past Till Our Days”, Energy and Azerbaijan: History, Strategy and Cooperation, Ed.Rovshan Ibrahimov, SAM, 2013, SAM, p.11

[13] Leila Alieva and Natalia Shapovalova, “ Energy Security in the South Caucasus: Views from the Region”, Cascase Working Group”, 2015

[14] Murman Margvelashvili, George Mukhigulishvili, “Georgia and its Role in Energy Transit Towards the West”, WEG, 2011

[15] Avinoam Idan and Brenda Schaffer, ibid., p. 242

[16] SAM, “Azerbaijan, Georgia , Turkey: Trilateral Alliance and the Future of Regional Politics”, 2014



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