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GUA? Mulling Moldova's Absence As Summit Begins

Presidents Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine (left), Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, and Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia at the summit

Presidents Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine (left), Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, and Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia at the summit

BATUMI, Georgia -- Officials from Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova are in the Georgian city of Batumi for the first day of the two-day GUAM summit, with energy issues topping the agenda.

The regional grouping, which includes Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, was founded in 1997 to foster cooperation between the former Soviet states and promote closer ties with the West.

A fifth member, Uzbekistan, suspended its membership in 2002.

The organization is widely viewed as a counterweight to another regional grouping, the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS.

The presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan are in attendance at the two-day summit, as are Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who have been invited as observers. Top officials from the United States and the Czech Republic will also be present.

Moldova Absent

Only Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, who has been pressured by Russia to withdraw from the pro-Western organization, snubbed the gathering. Moldova is represented by the country's deputy minister of foreign affairs and European integration, Valeriu Ostalep.

Despite that suggestion that the grouping may be suffering the first shudders of disintegration, this year's summit is taking place under the bullish motto: "GUAM -- Integrating Europe's East."

Reporting from Batumi, RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nata Imedaishvili says energy issues are high on the summit's agenda, with discussions focusing on the Odessa-Brody-Gdansk-Plock oil pipeline project.

"After the meeting," Imedaishvili says, "[Georgian] Energy Minister Alexander Khetaguri declared that once completed, this project will allow oil to be transported from the countries of the Caspian basin to Ukraine and then to Europe."

GUAM countries -- particularly Ukraine and Georgia, whose relations with Moscow have soured in recent years -- are eager to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Azerbaijan's energy and industry minister, Natiq Aliyev, is in Batumi, signaling the predominance of energy issues. Oil-rich Azerbaijan was quick to ship oil to Georgia in the winter of 2006 after explosions temporarily disabled Russian pipelines.

Georgian Gas Deliveries

Further stressing the importance of energy issues for GUAM member states, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, visited a family in Batumi on July 1 and symbolically lit the kitchen's gas stove.

"I am very pleased that Azerbaijani gas is delivered here," Aliyev said. "This illustrates our ties, our cooperation, and the fact that we were able to carry out a large-scale project in a short time. I am convinced that Azerbaijan will soon supply gas to other Georgian regions that have not yet been 'gasified.' Georgia is undergoing a gasification process and the volume of Azerbaijani gas delivered to your country is increasing."

Aliyev and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko are scheduled to hold talks with Saakashvili later on July 1.

Officials from GUAM countries are then expected to sign a series of documents promoting transportation and security cooperation between member states.