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Ukraine: GUUAM Summit Opens, Minus A Few Key Leaders

Prague, 3 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova -- the GUUAM grouping -- are gathering today in Ukraine's Black Sea resort of Yalta.

Only two of the five presidents will be attending the two-day summit, however.

The GUUAM representatives plan to discuss creating a free-trade zone, the group's original purpose. They are expected to endorse offshoot agreements on customs, trade, and transport.

In a sign the group has found, or is seeking, additional common ground, agreements on fighting organized crime and terrorism, as well as cooperation in education and science, are also ready for signing.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's absence from the summit is for "understandable reasons." Aliyev collapsed during a nationally broadcast speech in late April and spent more than one week in a hospital in Turkey recovering. The 80-year-old Aliyev remains under doctor's orders to rest even as he plans his strategy for re-election in polls set for October.

The Azerbaijani delegation to the summit will instead be led by Prime Minister Artur Rasizade.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin also is unwell and will be unable to attend, according to the country's first deputy foreign minister, Andrei Stratan. Stratan will be attending in Voronin's place.

Why Uzbek President Islam Karimov is not in Yalta is less clear. Shevardnadze said Karimov's absence would "be compensated by an official visit to Tbilisi in October of this year." Shevardnadze said he and Karimov would then discuss "key matters" of bilateral relations, as well as issues pertaining to GUUAM.

Karimov has never attended a GUUAM summit. It is unclear who would lead Uzbekistan's delegation to the summit.

Though the Azerbaijani, Uzbek, and Moldovan leaders will not be in Yalta, representatives from 19 other countries will be.

A U.S. delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Steven Pfeifer is in Yalta, as are delegations from Russia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met with the ambassadors of the five GUUAM countries in Washington last week to discuss prospects for projects in transportation and trade and cooperation between law enforcement agencies.

GUUAM was formed in 1997 in Strasbourg, France, when the presidents of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova met on the sidelines of a summit of the Council of Europe. In their initial joint communique, the four presidents stressed the importance of the four nations' cooperation in establishing TRACECA, the European Union Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia.

Uzbekistan joined in April 1999, several weeks after it pulled out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty.

GUUAM has never portrayed itself as a counterbalance to the six CIS countries that remain in the Collective Security Treaty -- Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus. But the fact remains that much attention has been drawn to this division of the CIS into GUUAM and CIS Collective Security Treaty countries, with Turkmenistan remaining neutral and outside both groupings.