Presidents Traian Basescu of Romania, Vladimir Voronin of Moldova, Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, Robert Kocharian of Armenia, and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan were joined by senior officials from the United States, Turkey, Bulgaria, and international organizations at the inaugural session of the Black Sea Forum for Partnership and Dialogue on June 4-6 in Bucharest.
A Romanian initiative, the Forum is tentatively meant to hold annual presidential-level summits — the venues rotating among participant countries — and thematic or sectoral-cooperation meeting during those annual intervals. The Forum is not meant to create new regional institutions, but rather to turn into a regular consultative process among countries of the extended Black Sea region (defined as including the South Caucasus to the Caspian Sea) and between this group of countries and international organizations such as the European Union.
Russia refused to send a delegation to the Forum; instead, it merely authorized the ambassador to Romania, Nikolai Tolkachev, to sit in as an observer, without taking part in discussions or signing a concluding document. Moscow had turned down the Forum initiative as soon as Bucharest announced it last December: Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly deprecated the proposed Forum as redundant, duplicative of existing cooperation frameworks, and apt to siphon off limited resources from those frameworks (Interfax, December 13, 2005). From that point on and practically until the Bucharest session’s eve, Russia turned down entreaties to join the Forum as a participant and to send an official delegation on a ministerial or some other decent level.
Officially, Moscow maintains that existing cooperation frameworks such as the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and the joint naval activity Black Sea Force (Blackseafor) are adequate in themselves as well as the only possible basis for deepening regional cooperation. Tolkachev reiterated this position to local media during the summit, thus in effect sniping at the Forum from the sidelines. Moscow finds BSEC and Blackseafor to its liking because it can dominate them jointly with Turkey and can also use them to promote Russian objectives in the region.
There is, however, a broader political message in Russia’s dismissive attitude toward the Forum: It suggests, first, that it is not for “lesser” countries to take major regional initiatives on their own that are not worked out with Moscow; and, second, that no regional project can be successful without Russia’s participation — a proposition that has almost become reflexive in Black Sea diplomacy and that Moscow tries to reinforce by distancing itself demonstratively from the Forum.
Nevertheless, Forum organizers hoped until the last moment to secure a decent-level Russian representation at the founding session as well as participant status for Russia in the Forum down the road. This consideration loomed large in shaping the summit’s agenda in a way that would not risk irritating Moscow. In this regard, the Forum summit duplicated (instead of learning from and avoiding) the experience of the December 2005 summit of the Community of Democratic Choice (CDC) in Kyiv. There, President Viktor Yushchenko’s forlorn hope (tied to the electoral campaign) to induce Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Ukraine trumped the CDC’s own democracy-promoting goals and made for a bland, irrelevant agenda at that summit. Similarly in Bucharest, the shadow of absentee Russia weakened the Forum’s agenda and raised unnecessary question marks about the rationale of this initiative.
Energy transit and the secessionist conflicts — those uppermost policy issues in the extended Black Sea region — seemed almost lost among a wide variety of issues on a kaleidoscopic agenda. Several participating heads of state did not avoid addressing the conflicts. Thus, Saakashvili described the latest claims by Russia-sponsored secessionist movements to legitimacy through a “democratic referendum” as a “cannibal-style democracy”: It involves the violent seizure of a territory, ethnic cleansing, despotic rule, and criminality, all of which is then to be crowned by a referendum and claims for international recognition on such a basis, Saakashvili noted.
For his part, Voronin criticized the draft of the Forum’s concluding declaration for failing to identify the external source and sponsor of the secessionist conflicts: Resolving the conflicts will not be possible if the external factor is not identified with the necessary clarity, Voronin observed. Aliyev declared that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity would not be subject to negotiations; while Kocharian characterized Karabakh as a “classic case of secession through self-determination” — a formulation seemingly in line with Moscow-led recent attempts to provide a “model” for post-Soviet conflict resolution. Aliyev and Kocharian held five hours of inconclusive talks, including a working dinner with Basescu, during the two days of the Bucharest summit.
Yushchenko’s speech harked back to the 2005 CDC, although that initiative does not seem to have survived its birth. He also urged, as he had then, Black Sea countries to co-invest in a project to build a massive industrial center and transport hub at Donuzlav on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, without providing specifics; and he called for coordination among Black Sea, Caspian, and Baltic countries in addressing energy problems. Yushchenko held a news conference for Ukrainian journalists, presumably dealing with deepening instability back home, and prompting the local press to complain of being excluded.
Aliyev’s speech, delivered extemporaneously, stood out for reflecting the political stability and bright economic prospects of Azerbaijan, possibly the most successful among the region’s countries at this stage. The speech exuded quiet confidence in the strategy of evolutionary political and economic reforms on parallel tracks and the advance of Azerbaijan from a regional to a global role in energy projects.
(Rompres, Moldpres, Interfax-Ukraine, AzerTaj, June 5, 6)