The foreign ministers of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova signed a memorandum of understanding on establishing cooperation on European integration in Kyiv on May 17, forming a trilateral alliance called “Association Trio.” The primary goal of the new alliance is to make a concerted move toward European integration, as the document outlines their EU membership goal. “[A]s European states, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine have a European perspective and may apply to become a member of the European Union,” the document stated (Mfa.gov.ua, May 17).
Although the EU has never offered or promised any membership perspective to these three countries, they have now formally, jointly and unilaterally initiated an EU membership perspective for themselves. Brussels has yet to make clear whether it welcomes this move (Euractiv.com, May 18). The formation of the Association Trio has implications for the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) and the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development that includes Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The EU has used the EaP to develop bilateral relations with individual states without much enthusiasm to foster integration. A similar strategic mistake is made repeatedly by Russia, which uses its post-Soviet integration structures, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to wield influence over the individual states instead of fostering integration among them. Yet another mistake is related to the EU’s and Russia’s tendency to target and work mainly with a few active social actors rather than reaching out to larger segments of the society (Uzhnu.edu.ua, p.109-129, April 2018; Wilsoncenter.org, January 8, 2020).
In this context, the Association Trio also replicates those mistakes and represents a mere reaction to recent regional developments rather than fixing the strategic flaws. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s statement reflects that reality: “Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are convinced that the Eastern Partnership needs a strategic renewal.” Thus, the countries seek a “strategic renewal” of the EaP but still view it as furthering “deeper relations” with the EU while ignoring the importance of developing deeper relations among themselves (Kmu.gov.ua, May 17).
The Association Trio format could be regarded as a break-up of the EaP in practice, which, nonetheless, remains formally in place. Indeed, Belarus’s symbolic and limited involvement in the EaP will be further marginalized following the Ryanair airplane scandal and the 2020 presidential election unrest. At the same time, Armenia and Azerbaijan have become wary of Russia more than ever before following the Second Karabakh War and the subsequent deployment of a Russian peacekeeping mission. Baku has used the EaP as an instrument in its dealings with Moscow. Namely, by rejecting the association agreement and not yet signing a new partnership agreement with the EU, Azerbaijan has sought to appease the Kremlin, whereas Yerevan’s 2017 signing of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU has amplified Moscow’s distrust of Armenia. Currently, Baku’s statements regarding the possible signing of a new agreement with the EU are rather a communication exercise (See EDM May 22, 2019; December 11, 2019). Yet to sign a partnership agreement with the EU, one does not need to be included in the EaP. For instance, Kazakhstan signed a similar agreement with the EU back in 2015.
Juxtaposing the GUAM Charter and the text of the memorandum of the Association Trio indicates that both accentuate the goals of European integration. A significant difference is that the GUAM Charter emphasizes the settlement of territorial conflicts based on territorial integrity. But the Association Trio places a lesser emphasis on territorial disputes (Mfa.gov.ua, May 17; Guam-organization.org, May 23, 2006). The Association Trio was informally called GUM even before the official signing of the document, also in allusion to Azerbaijan’s absence (See EDM October 9, 2018; Uawire.org, February 10). By formally calling it Association Trio, not GUM, Tbilisi, Kyiv and Chisinau have tried not to shun Azerbaijan. In 1997, the four states had founded GUAM, whose demise started with the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and the 2009 launch of the EaP.
While official Baku keeps muted regarding the Association Trio, some Azerbaijani media outlets have regarded it as an adversarial move against Baku (Konkret.az, Musavat.com, May 26). But this kind of assessment is superficial and ill-grounded. GUAM had two major goals: European integration and conflict settlement. Therefore, GUAM has now become irrelevant for official Baku. First, the Azerbaijani government has publicly rejected European integration. Second, the Azerbaijani leadership insists that the Karabakh conflict has been settled through the Second Karabakh War despite rigorous rejections by Armenia and its supporters. Yet, some parts of Azerbaijani territory remain under the effective control of Armenian forces and Russian peacekeepers. Thus, Azerbaijan needs to realize that the GUM position might change to become more in line with the EU. The recent vote of the Georgian delegation in favor of Armenia versus Azerbaijan on the PACE resolution regarding prisoners of war is a case in point (Europarl.europa.eu, May 19, Baki-xeber.com, April 23).
There have been attempts to revive GUAM, particularly by Kyiv in the aftermath of the Crimean annexation and the separatist war in eastern Ukraine, but to no effect (Zn.ua, October 9, 2017). Russia’s Sputnik news agency headlined its recent article as “GUM or GUAM – one nature, anti-Russian.” Other Russian media outlets alleged that it had been blessed by the US (Iz.ru, Sputnik.md, May 18, 21). Azerbaijan has appeared disinterested in attempts to revive GUAM since Baku strives to disassociate itself from being viewed as “anti-Russian” in Moscow. In that sense, the creation of GUM or Association Trio as an ultimate replacement for GUAM, but without involving Azerbaijan, is in a way a relief for Baku.