GUAM, which groups Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, is just one of the myriad alliances that arose from the ashes of the Soviet Union and are now vying for control of the region.
The GUAM youth summit comes just days after a gathering in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, of officials from the 12 former Soviet republics that form the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS.
The CIS summit featured sideline meetings between additional regional groupings. The six-member Eurasian Economic Community, or Eurasec, held talks. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, signed an important agreement to pool resources.
The dizzying assortment of regional alliances -- together with their perplexing acronyms -- is one of the legacies of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Some of these groupings, like the CIS, followed in the immediate wake of the USSR; others in the late 1990s. Some are concerned with security and defense, while others focus mainly on economic development.
Only close observers are likely able to recite the membership and official aims of all of the groups. But Alexandre Rondeli, the head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategy and International Studies in Tbilisi, makes it simple. All of these organizations, he says, can be roughly split into two camps.
"Some countries try to defend themselves and form alliances to counter Russian threats and even Russian economic pressure," Rondeli says. "Other alliances and groups are created by Russia, or Russia's close allies, to restore a post-imperial space under Russian domination."
Under that model, GUAM -- which stands for the name of its four members, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova -- would fall into the first category. Although its leaders insist the group is not directed against any other state, the westward-leaning ambitions evident in varying degrees in its members have contributed to its reputation as an anti-Moscow alliance.
Lately, GUAM has focused on extending an oil pipeline from Brody in Ukraine to the Polish city of Gdansk, which would enable Azerbaijan to pump oil directly to Western Europe, bypassing Russia.
The leaders of Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, and Lithuania are expected to discuss the project today at an energy summit in the Lithuanian Baltic Sea town of Klaipeda.
Also high on GUAM's agenda are plans to create a multinational peacekeeping force that would replace the Russian contingent currently deployed in the Moscow-backed separatist regions of Transdniester in Moldova, and of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
Expectedly, Russian officials have consistently accused the alliance of being anti-Russian and denounced it as an instrument used by the United States, a GUAM sponsor, and other Western nations to try to undermine Russia's clout in the region.
"The geopolitical context of this organization is definitely anti-Russian," says Konstantin Zatulin, the head of the CIS Institute in Moscow and a State Duma deputy for the country's Unified Russia ruling party. "Some are making use of the unfulfilled ambitions or internal problems of certain countries which, for a number of reasons, do not or cannot work with Russia like others. The West needs this organization to compensate for Russia's influence and revival, to contain it."
Others, like Rondeli in Tbilisi, say Moscow is simply riled by the efforts of GUAM member states to break out of Moscow's orbit.
"Russia has always seen GUAM as a menace," Rondeli says. "Any alliance or organization that doesn't include Russia or that isn't dominated by Russia is considered an enemy, hostile. [Russia] is trying to destroy it by influencing certain countries, for example [former GUAM member] Uzbekistan and Moldova."
The pro-Western presidents of Ukraine and Georgia, Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili, both swept to power after mass protests that toppled Moscow-friendly regimes. Both are at loggerheads with the Kremlin.
While Moldova also leans increasingly westward, Azerbaijan has retained a more conciliatory position, avoiding confrontation with Moscow.
All four heads of state have called for increased cooperation between GUAM and NATO and the European Union.
Yushchenko's rise to the presidency has also poured cold water on Moscow's hopes of creating a common economic space comprising Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last week during the Dushanbe CIS summit that Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will launch a customs union in 2011 within the framework of Eurasec. He said the union may later grow to embrace the three other Eurasec members -- Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Three of the four GUAM members -- Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova -- have meanwhile threatened to desert the CIS altogether. Many Commonwealth member states have aired frustration with what is seen as Moscow's domineering role in the group. A number of policy watchers have seen the deepening rifts within the CIS as signs heralding its disintegration.
But Alexander Rahr, a CIS expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says shifting alliances are only natural in the context of transition.
"One thing has changed. In the 1990s, post-Soviet countries were poor; they were dependent on the West or on Asia for resources. Today, the situation has dramatically changed," Rahr says. "These countries have reached unexpectedly high levels of economic growth, so they will develop their own interests in each other, their own way of building the future together."
Rahr nonetheless upholds the view that shifts within the CIS are crystallizing into two camps, with GUAM countries increasingly setting their sights on the West. The result, he says, is that Russia is rallying allies in the East.
"Russia has understood that it has no future building a new reintegration model with countries like Ukraine or Georgia, which are heading westward," he says. "So Moscow is moving toward the east, toward the Central Asian states, which are eager to have some kind of alliance with Russia. I think the idea of a gas cartel that would include this region's energy-rich countries is something that Moscow is envisaging for itself in the near future."
Still, there are other regional groupings that bring Moscow and some of its dissenters to the table. The Black Sea Economic Cooperation group, or BSEC, brings together 12 countries, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine, with the expressed aim of fostering stability and integration in the Black Sea region.
There is also the informal grouping of the Caspian Sea littoral states, which comprises Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. Tehran is due to host the next Caspian Sea summit on October 16.
Who's In A Name?
BSEC (ORGANIZATION OF THE BLACK SEA ECONOMIC COOPERATION)
Current members: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine.
CIS (COMMONWEALTH OF INDEPENDENT STATES)
Current members: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan is an associate member after ending its permanent membership in 2005.
CSTO (COLLECTIVE SECURITY TREATY ORGANIZATION)
Current members: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Azerbaijan and Georgia withdrew in 1999.
EURASEC (EURASIAN ECONOMIC COMMUNITY)
Current members: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
GUAM (ORGANIZATION FOR DEMOCRACY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT)
Current members: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Uzbekistan withdrew its membership in 2005.
SCO (SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANIZATION)
Current members: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.