Vladimir Putin wants to revive the Commonwealth of Independent States, the association that includes all of the former Soviet states except the three Baltic republics. He looks to Russians abroad as a source of support, but he is not shy about using economic pressure to advance his aims. The newly aggressive Kremlin diplomacy has shaken up GUUAM, a group formed to offset Moscow’s influence in the CIS. Now the GUUAM members–Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova–are feeling some heat.
Moldova is especially vulnerable to economic pressure. The government is essentially bankrupt and deeply indebted to the Russian monopoly Gazprom, on which it depends for much of its fuel supply. In addition, about a third of Moldova’s territory, the Transdniester region east of the Dniestr River, is under the de facto control of a Russian-speaking breakaway government backed by armed forces of the Russian Federation which have never completed a long-overdue post-Soviet withdrawal. Moldova began skipping GUUAM meetings last year and now disclaims any interest in GUUAM’s security functions.
Uzbekistan for some time has found common cause with Russia in opposing Islamic extremism. In February, 1999, a failed assassination attempt on President Islam Karimov left dozens dead and many more injured in an explosion in central Tashkent. More recently, Kyrgyz forces with some Russian assistance beat back an attempt by an Islamic group to penetrate Uzbekistan through the Ferghana valley in southwest Kyrgyzstan. Karimov, a Soviet-era leader who has made few changes since independence, brought Uzbekistan into GUUAM only last April, during the NATO summit in Washington. With the rise of Putin, an old acquaintance, Karimov’s interest and engagement in GUUAM has dropped off.
Without Uzbekistan, GUUAM has no presence in Central Asia. The organization’s center of gravity may be shifting toward Ukraine, which since President Leonid Kuchma’s re-election last November has turned sharply toward the West. Ukraine was host March 1-2 to a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body–the first NAC meeting in a nonmember country. With Georgia and Azerbaijan both seeking closer ties to NATO, a Georgia-Azerbaijan-Ukraine GAU could be a more cohesive and effective organization (if a less amusing acronym) than today’s timid GUUAM.