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GUUAM: Ukraine Aspires To Leadership Role In Revitalized Organization

How much has GUUAM's face changed since this 2002 summit, which included (from left)Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliyev, Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze, Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma, and Moldova's Vladimir Voronin? 27 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Following Viktor Yushchenko's election late last year as Ukrainian president and Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin's espousal of an unequivocally pro-Western foreign policy orientation, many observers anticipated that the long-awaited summit of the GUUAM alignment in Chisinau on 22 April would herald a new era in that body's activities.

Speaking for the three other presidents of member states who attended the summit, Yushchenko redefined GUUAM's priorities, highlighting democratization and eventual membership of NATO and the EU. But at the same time, the discussions between participants revealed at least one major strategic disagreement.

GUUAM first evolved in 1997 as GUAM -- the brainchild of the then presidents of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine (Eduard Shevardnadze, Heidar Aliyev and Leonid Kuchma) -- on the basis of their shared pro-Western orientation, mistrust of Russia, and the desire to profit jointly from the export of at least part of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil via Georgia and Ukraine. Moldova's inclusion, formalized on the sidelines of a Council of Europe summit in Strasbourg in October 1997, resulted partly from concern over the anticipated impact of the revisions adopted in May 1997 to the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe; those amendments increased the amount of weaponry Russia is allowed to deploy in the Transcaucasus, Ukraine, and Moldova. Moldova was also interested in the TRACECA project to create a coordinated transport corridor from Central Asia via the Transcaucasus and Ukraine to Europe. In April 1999, Uzbekistan was formally accepted as a member of GUAM, but its participation has never been anything but half-hearted, and in June 2002 Tashkent "suspended" its membership until further notice.

Moscow's Fears

From the organization's inception, Moscow has harbored fears and suspicions that its primary rationale is to undermine the CIS and Russia's claim to a leading role within that body. Two ongoing trends have fueled those misgivings. The first is discussions of a possible military-security component for GUUAM in the shape of either a joint peacekeeping battalion or a security force to guard the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export pipeline for Azerbaijan's Caspian oil. (The defense ministers of the GUUAM member states have met more regularly than have the presidents.)

The second is the keen interest, and later financial support, given to GUUAM by the United States, which in late 2000 allocated $45 million to the alliance's five members to be spent as they considered appropriate. Senior officials from GUUAM member states have consistently sought to allay Moscow's concerns. For example, speaking in May 2000 in Washington, Moldovan Ambassador to Washington Ceslav Ciobanu stressed that "our organization was never designed to be oriented against any other country."
Yushchenko's election as Ukrainian president, and the close convergence of geopolitical interests between Ukraine and Georgia, engendered hopes that the organization could be revitalized, with Ukraine as the largest committed member playing a leading role.

While GUUAM's members made no secret of their desire for closer cooperation with Euro-Atlantic and European structures, the advantages of closer economic cooperation were touted as the locomotive for GUUAM's development. In August 2000, Yushchenko, then Ukrainian prime minister, proposed creating a GUUAM free-trade zone. That idea was endorsed by all five presidents at a meeting in September 2000 on the sidelines of the UN Millennium Summit in New York.

In June 2001, the five GUUAM presidents met in Yalta and adopted a GUUAM charter outlining the organization's basic goals and principles, which included economic cooperation, developing transport links, strengthening regional security, and cooperating in the fight against organized crime and international terrorism. But they did not sign Yushchenko's proposed agreement on establishing the free-trade zone, which Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov termed "premature." Karimov did not attend the next summit, in Yalta in July 2002, at which the other four countries gave the green light for the free-trade zone. By that juncture, Moldova too was signaling its disenchantment with GUUAM; President Voronin was quoted by Caucasus Press on 19 July as saying GUUAM's future prospects are unclear.

The planned free-trade zone and transport corridors figured on the agenda of the next summit, in July 2003. But only two of the five presidents attended -- Karimov stayed away in line with Uzbekistan's "suspended" membership, and the presidents of Azerbaijan and Moldova were absent due to illness. And only the Ukrainian parliament ratified the agreement on establishing the free-trade zone.

For much of 2004, GUUAM appeared to have lost momentum: a summit planned for Batumi in June was postponed indefinitely for reasons that were never made clear. But GUUAM leaders did agree in September 2004 to establish an interparliamentary assembly.

Revitalizing GUUAM?

Yushchenko's election as Ukrainian president, and the close convergence of geopolitical interests between Ukraine and Georgia, engendered hopes that the organization could be revitalized, with Ukraine as the largest committed member playing a leading role. On 18 April, Azerbaijani presidential-administration official Novruz Mamedov predicted that the summit would give GUUAM its "second wind," while Georgian National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili told Caucasus Press the same day that member states have agreed to coordinate their efforts to secure membership of NATO and the EU.

Addressing this month's Chisinau GUUAM summit, President Yushchenko advocated transforming GUUAM into "a large-scale regional organization" committed to democracy, economic development, and regional security and with its own headquarters and secretariat. Although Yushchenko did not say so, the security dimension would serve to underscore the difference between GUUAM and the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization, the activities of which GUUAM might otherwise risk duplicating. "The idea is to create a coalition of states on the basis of GUUAM that would become the stronghold and guarantee of democratic reforms and stability in the Black Sea-Caspian region," Interfax quoted Yushchenko as saying -- a formulation that implies that Uzbekistan no longer figures in the equation.

Yushchenko also unveiled at the Chisinau summit a new seven-point initiative aimed at resolving the long-running Transdniester conflict. That step-by-step peace proposal would entail holding free and democratic elections in Transdniester under the aegis of the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United States, and Russia, and the replacement of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Transdniester with international military and civilian observers. Yushchenko hinted that that model might subsequently be applied to other unresolved conflicts on the territory of GUUAM member states, meaning those in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

But Yushchenko's peace plan failed to win the support of other participants; Romanian President Traian Basescu objected that holding elections in Transdniester under the auspices of international organizations would serve to legitimize the existing separatist regime. At the same time, Basescu called for the swift withdrawal of all Russian troops from Transdniester and expanding the current five-sided format for mediating a solution to the conflict. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin for his part said he was not informed in advance of Yushchenko's proposal, according to the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" on 25 April.

The presence at the Chisinau summit of both Basescu and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus served to highlight the possibility -- to which Yushchenko alluded -- that other states might apply to join GUUAM. In the past, Romania, Bulgaria, and Latvia have also been mentioned as potential new members.

But in the final analysis, the organization's potential and future influence, and hence its attractiveness to outsiders, might depend largely on its members' success in resolving long-running territorial conflicts that will otherwise continue to drain those countries' modest economic resources.