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Uzbekistan: Tashkent Withdraws From GUUAM, Remaining Members Forge Ahead

Uzbekistan has withdrawn from the GUUAM organization, which was composed of five former Soviet republics: Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. The political, economic, and strategic alliance, which Tashkent joined three years ago, sought mechanisms of interaction outside Russian influence. But the Uzbek leadership said it has seen no progress in advancing the causes that GUUAM's members had set, and believes simple multilateral cooperation would be more effective.

Prague, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan says it is pulling out of the GUUAM organization, which brought together five former Soviet republics. Officials in Tashkent argue that the group has failed to become an effective mechanism for strengthening relations or for promoting integration among member countries.

Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova set up GUAM in 1997 around the idea of building a Europe-Caucasus-Asia transport corridor. Uzbekistan joined the organization, which became GUUAM, in 1999.

Alex Vatanka, editor of the "Russia-CIS Security Assessment Binder," part of the Jane's Sentinel group, spoke with RFE/RL about Uzbekistan's past history in such organizations. "The Uzbek government is always late in signing up to any type of program that attempts to bring the former Soviet republics together. But it also seems to be the first one to leave. It is fairly quick to act whenever it sees no need or sees its membership in regional organizations fail to serve its interests," Vatanka said.

In 1999, Uzbekistan left the CIS Collective-Security Treaty. Last year, Tashkent joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Russia, China, and three other former Soviet Central Asian republics. Tashkent, however, has appeared to lose enthusiasm since joining the organization, and did not send anyone to its ministerial meetings earlier this year.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov was quoted as saying his government's main complaint was the failure of GUUAM member states to remove legal obstacles for the transportation of goods among them. He said it is cheaper for Uzbekistan to export and import goods via non-GUUAM member states.

Kamilov left open the possibility, however, that his country may resume its membership in the organization. He also emphasized that Tashkent intends to concentrate on the development of bilateral ties with remaining members.

Vatanka said economic integration is the major issue for landlocked Uzbekistan. He also pointed out that GUUAM was a group of very distinct states united by individual disagreements with Russian foreign policy. "If you look at the countries that are involved, Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, at the time of [GUUAM's] creation, all of them had strong opposition toward what Russia was trying to do in the CIS, which was basically to gradually regain the lost so-called near abroad," Vatanka said.

According to Vatanka, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Georgia joined GUAM because Russia was involved in the Transdniester, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Abkhazia conflicts. Ukraine and Uzbekistan did not have such problems, he pointed out, and said both countries seemed to believe they were not "large enough" to oppose Russia unilaterally.

Now, Vatanka said, it seems clear there is nothing left to keep the members together. "In Moldova, you have a communist president who is certainly not in favor of more GUUAM cooperation. Azerbaijan and Russia are improving relations. Ukraine and Russia are improving relations on energy, which was one of the principal issues when GUAM was created. There is even less argument for cooperation now than there was in 1999," Vatanka said.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Rome declaration in May, which established the NATO-Russia Council -- a forum for joint cooperation in fighting terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- the existence of GUUAM lost much of its political sense. Indeed, the West provided strong support for GUUAM when it was founded and often regarded it as an alternative to the CIS.

Alexander Rondeli is the president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. He admitted that GUUAM member states are having difficulty finding a reason for the organization's existence, especially after the geopolitical changes that have recently occurred in the region.

For example, Rondeli said, Uzbekistan's relations with the West have considerably improved since it made available its airspace and bases to U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition forces. "GUUAM is now in [a new] situation after the 11 September events and U.S.-Russian -- I would say -- detente or almost friendship. GUUAM does not maybe look to some as attractive as it was. And the reason is also that the links among GUUAM members are not very strong," Rondeli said.

Rondeli said the political situation in Moldova -- an active member of the organization in the office of its previous president -- does not contribute to GUUAM's "flourishing." But he noted that Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan appear to be particularly determined to stay in the organization.

Rondeli said Uzbekistan's pullout may act as an "alarm bell" for the organization in spurring remaining members to think more about GUUAM's strategy and its further development, and ways to make the alliance more viable and efficient.

Comments from Ukrainian and Georgian officials show that their respective governments are not surprised by Uzbekistan's decision, but say they remain optimistic about the future of GUAM.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko has indicated he believes Uzbekistan's exit will not lead to GUUAM's disintegration. In telephone conversations yesterday with his Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Moldovan counterparts, ITAR-TASS reported, Zlenko discussed issues connected with the preparation of an upcoming meeting of the Committee of the GUAM Foreign Ministers, and a future GUAM summit scheduled later this year in Yalta. Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said GUUAM had started with the goal of creating a transport corridor, "and will play this role in future."

As for Georgia, President Eduard Shevardnadze said there is "nothing tragic" about Uzbekistan's pullout, noting Tashkent has not been particularly interested in GUUAM activities. He admitted, though, that Uzbekistan's pullout will limit the organization's opportunities.