News from the Southern Gas Corridor, the renewal of Balkan-Caucasian relations

The Caucasus is the Balkans of Eurasia” wrote Zbigniew Brzezinski1, national security advisor to President Carter from 1977 to 1981. If comparison is not always possible, we can nevertheless note the common points between these two geopolitical areas. These territories have geographical similarities due to the presence of high mountains; they have also long been points of friction between the Turkish and Russian empires; they also present themselves as two complex ethno-linguistic and religious mosaics challenging a conception of the naturalized nation state and the only one recognized by the norms of international law; more recently it is the Western recognition of the independence of Kosovo in the Balkans which provided a perfect justification for Russia to support the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Caucasus, then in the Donbass, and strengthen its ties with Serbia; we also know that the Armenians arrived in Anatolia from the Balkans around 1200 BC; these two geopolitical areas are driven by ethno-territorial conflicts which have experienced a notable reactivation since the fall of the Soviet bloc only around thirty years ago and they are marked by a resulting territorial fragmentation; and Turkish cultural influence is pervasive throughout these two regions.

 The links and elements requiring comparison are therefore numerous even if the problems of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea are not those of the Mediterranean, that the Caucasian ethno-linguistic diversity is much greater than that of the Balkans, and that the immediate geopolitical environment is quite different: if all these countries are in the Turkish zone of influence, the two regions are marked by greater proximity to the European Union for one, and to Central Asia, for Russia and Iran for the other.

 But it is rather relations between the countries of these two regions that will be discussed here and more particularly relations with Azerbaijan. Indeed, the armed clashes of the Ukrainian war unleashed from February 2022 have given greater visibility to the positions of each party in relation to its big Russian neighbor. Accession processes to the European Union have been relaunched. Serbia’s ambivalent game was highlighted, with Armenia’s tending to seriously soften, at least in appearance, since the end of the “44-day war” and calls for help remained unanswered. Above all, issues of access to energy resources were brought to light, which allowed a renewal of Balkan-Caucasian relations which will be discussed here.

 Because this cooperation in development reflects another common point and probably the most important at present: all these countries are located on a developing transport corridor going from China to Europe and for which negotiations are going well, each wanting take advantage of its geostrategic position. A new bridge between Europe and Asia is trying to carve a passage south of the Black Sea through the Balkans2.

 The war in Ukraine and the Southern Gas Corridor

 In July 2022, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, and Kadri Simon, the European Commissioner for Energy, visited Azerbaijan to sign a new memorandum of understanding on a strategic partnership in the field of energy, including “a commitment to double the capacity of the Southern Gas Corridor to deliver at least 20 billion cubic meters to the EU per year by 2027» in order to contribute to the «diversification objectives of the REPowerEU plan» and help Europe to “end its dependence on Russian gas“. Ursula vonder Leyen also declared : « let us strengthen our economic relations and bring our people closer together. Connectivity will be crucial here. EU wants to work with Azerbaijan and build ties with Central Asia and beyond“. The Commission’s draft memorandum of understanding dated July 11 even stipulated that the two parties should intensify their actions to reduce methane emissions and study possibilities for electricity interconnections and concerning future hydrogen trade. This cooperation had already been mentioned on January 30, 2022 by Josep Borell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, at a time when Russia was already limiting its gas deliveries due to a drop in 25% year-on-year in the last three months of 2021.

In the process, in addition to the visit of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov to Baku a few days later, highlighting the existence of a direct supply line to Bulgaria along the Southern Gas Corridor, exchanges took place with Albania, whose electricity supply is essentially hydraulic. On the occasion of his trip on November 15, 2022, the first of an Azerbaijani president to Albania, President Aliyev recalled alongside his counterpart Bayram Begay that the two countries are members of the TAP project and declared that within the framework of the agreement with the EU« what gas[would pass]through Albanian territory, thus providing additional support and contribution to Europe’s energy security. ”Likewise, he said he was ready to invest in the establishment of a gas network that still does not exist in Albania, while emphasizing their common membership in NATO but also Albanian support in the territorial conflict between it and Armenia. A few weeks later, on the occasion of the visit of the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, to Baku, the opening of an embassy in Tirana was announced.

 At the same time in November 2022,Azerbaijan signed with Serbia3 7 bilateral agreements, on the occasion of the visit of President Ilham Aliev to meet his counterpart Aleksandar Vucic on November 23, 2022. and the two heads of state together and openly criticized the lack of respect for the law by international organizations. Specifying “We have a lot in common with Azerbaijan, starting with the fact that we tirelessly preserve our territorial integrity”t he Serbian president draws a clear parallel between Kosovo and Karabakh. By calling his counterpart “most popular man in Europe» and affirming: “we believe in his word more than in any signature», the Serbian president occasionally addressed the many avenues of collaboration between the two countries : interconnection between Serbia and Bulgaria, electricity transmission and European project connecting Georgia, Romania, Hungary and Azerbaijan of submarine cable under the Black Sea, junction of the transmission network to Romania and Hungary .At the beginning of December, the Serbian president again mentioned “a gas pipeline connection with Bulgaria on the Nis-Dimitrovgrad line to import natural gas from Azerbaijan and LNG from Greece ”stating that “ the trans-Adriatic gas pipeline (TAP)[would be] Italy’s second largest source of gas supplies..

All these projects have been conscientiously maintained since summer 2022 in the Western Balkans4 and with neighboring countries. Bilateral relations of Azerbaijan with the mentioned countries are state of balancing the energy supply with the support of the Azerbaijani position on the international level: we will have noted the Albanian support for the Francophonie Summit in Djerba or Balkan support for the holding of COP 29 in Azerbaijan for example.

 A project with multiple ramifications…

 As a reminder, the 878km TAP trans-Adriatic gas pipeline starting from Azerbaijan and ending in Italy while passing through Greece5 and Albania was put into service at the end of 2020 with a capacity of 10 billion cubic meters per year and it was already exporting 8.1 billion in 2021 including 1.2 billion for Bulgaria and Greece, while having a capacity expansion to 20 billion cubic meters per year. Its contribution cannot therefore equal the 158.5 billion cubic meters exported in 2020 by Russia to Europe, or 40% of European supply. Azerbaijan then agreed to export 4 million cubic meters per day to Turkey for the month of February 2022, an agreement facilitated by that signed between Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran on November 28, 2021.The CGS, which became operational on December 31, 2020, includes Shah Deniz 2, South Caucasus Gas Pipeline Extension, the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and the Trans-Adriatic Gas Pipeline (TAP).

 March 1st, 2024 saw the unfolding of the 10th Ministerial Meeting of the Southern Gas Corridor in Baku during which President Aliyev announced the new delivery from two additional countries: Serbia and Hungary recalling that Azerbaijan delivered 8 countries including 6 European countries. He recalled “the beginning of the commercial production of natural gas from the Apcheron gas and condensate field in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspiansea” second largest discovery of huge gas deposits after Shahdeniz6, allowing a production forecast of 1.5 billion cubic meters during the first phase of the project which began, then an additional 4 to 5 billion cubic meters during the second phase of implementation. A project in which the Emirati company ADNOC became a shareholder in 2023.But he also mentioned the project of production of natural gas in the first quarter of 2025 from the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli deep gas project, in which the British company BP is engaged, for which half a billion additional cubic meters are expected as well as an increase of 3 to 5 times higher in the following years. THE green cable project under the Black Sea was also mentioned which would make it possible to export solar and wind energy produced in the country to the European Union, in particular by Azerbaijan’s first large solar power plant with a capacity of 230 megawatts, built by the Emirati Masdar with the participation of the Saudi ACWA. Azerbaijan intends to produce up to 5,000 megawatts or 5 gigawatts of solar and wind energy until 2030. Likewise, wind projects in the Caspian Sea are planned. Opportunity for Kadri Simon to take stock of “the first Azerbaijani gas flows to the EU on December 31, 2020» : an increase in flows of 46% between 2021 and today, a contribution of 11 billion cubic meters in 2023 from Azerbaijan7, work in progress to double this contribution by 2027, development of renewable energy and electrification projects and in particular a cable project under the Black Sea.

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