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GUAM Prepares For Summit Amid Doubts Over Its Future

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin will not be attending
Officials from Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova have begun converging in the Georgian city of Batumi for a two-day GUAM summit starting July 1.

The regional grouping, whose full name is the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development GUAM, was founded in 1997 to foster cooperation between the four former Soviet states and promote European integration.

The pro-Western group is widely seen as a way of countering Russian influence in the region, although GUAM leaders have consistently denied entertaining such ambitions.

As in previous years, the summit takes place amid doubts over GUAM's future.

Moldova Absent

Moldova's presidential administration has confirmed to RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service that Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, who has been pressured by Russia to withdraw from the grouping, will not be in attendance.

Voronin was absent from GUAM's summit in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, last year, sparking speculation that Moldova would pull out of the grouping. At the time, Voronin had claimed that important meetings in Brussels prevented him from attending.

But in March, Voronin again cast doubt on Moldova's GUAM membership in an interview with the Russian daily "Kommersant."

"With GUAM, the prospects are hazy," he said. "If there is no economic interest, we are not interested in staying there just to be a counterbalance to someone."

Moldovan officials, however, continue to insist that their country has no intention to quit the group.

Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan was quick to play down Voronin's comments in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service.

"Moldova is not considering leaving GUAM," Stratan said. "GUAM is formed by countries with which Moldova has good, friendly relations. Moldova will retain its former positions and will continue to develop projects that are in the Republic of Moldova's interests. These are chiefly economic projects that are under discussion within the framework of GUAM, very promising transportation projects -- including a road around the Black Sea -- and, of course, energy projects that interest both Moldova and Ukraine."

Igor Klipiy, a deputy representing Moldova's opposition Democratic Party, believes Moldova will stay in GUAM to lobby for Russia's interests.

"I think Moldova will not leave GUAM, but will express its own, individual opinion on decisions made by GUAM that don't please Moscow," Klipiy said. "The actions of Moldova's current government focus more on preserving power within the country than on solving concrete problems."

GUAM has already suffered the defection of one of its members, Uzbekistan, which joined in 1999 and withdrew six years later, citing the group's poor organization.

'Still Mightier'

The grouping also been criticized for lacking true commitment to democratic values, particularly Azerbaijan and Moldova.

GUAM's secretary-general, Valery Chechelashvili, recently dismissed such criticisms as "understandable."

"GUAM is an influential organization, and that is precisely why all kinds of rumors emerge around it," he said. "With time, we will become still mightier and more respected."

This year's summit takes place under the motto: "GUAM -- Integrating Europe's East."

For the first time, joint sessions will be held on three issues -- economic development, humanitarian aid, and security cooperation.

Participating countries are expected to sign the Batumi declaration, a document that focuses on developing transportation in the region.

RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report