Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 5

By Vladimir Socor

Like Luigi Pirandello’s stage characters, GUUAM’s member countries seem forever in search of a playwright with a script. Ukraine from time to time provides the group’s other member countries–Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Uzbekistan–with some sense of stage movement, and the United States steps occasionally into the prompter’s box. With that, GUUAM has until now managed to enact one performance per season.

Presidents Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine, Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, Haidar Aliev of Azerbaijan and Vladimir Voronin of Moldova held a summit of GUUAM in Yalta, Ukraine on July 19-20, one year after the preceding summit, also held in Yalta. This time, Uzbek President Islam Karimov stayed away from the event, having two months earlier announced that Uzbekistan had abandoned GUUAM because of what he described as the group’s ineffectiveness. International observers gave up one “U” for lost and took to calling the group GUAM. On the summit’s eve, however, Kyiv persuaded Tashkent to reinterpret its withdrawal as a “temporary suspension of its active participation.” Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Ukraine joined the presidents at the summit, but without authorization to sign any of the documents.

Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Anatoly Zlenko, who has worked hard to keep GUUAM alive for almost two years, now suggests renaming the group as the Black Sea-Caspian Sea Initiative. Such a name would indeed reflect the geography of the group’s core members–Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan–and their stated willingness to pursue a common agenda in the region so defined. The first order of the day is to make the group a formal institution. This goal has remained largely unfulfilled since last year’s summit, causing Zlenko now to express his frustration over the “wasted year.”

Even with a variable geometry, this group unites the countries that stay out of the Russian-dominated CIS Collective Security Treaty and Eurasian Economic Community. In this sense, it does represent a potential alternative to Moscow-centered “integration.” Whether as GUUAM, GUAM or Black Sea-Caspian Sea Initiative, a close functional cooperation might ease these countries’ long wait outside the European Union’s range of political and economic vision. When the EU finally devises a policy to pull these inherently pro-European countries away from Eurasia, it should find it easier to deal with a coherent group of countries already committed to transit projects and security arrangements so vital to Europe’s future.

This year’s summit yielded agreements and decisions on the operating rules of the GUUAM Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers, on creating a GUUAM business council, on the admission of countries with observer status and on the functioning of the GUUAM information center that opened in Kyiv just before the summit. GUUAM’s chairmanship–in contrast to that of the CIS–does rotate: It has now passed from Aliev to Shevardnadze. Apart from such measures of internal organization, the four attending presidents signed a declaration on joint efforts to ensure stability and security in the region, an agreement on cooperation in combating terrorism, organized crime and illegal financial flows, and an agreement to create a Free Trade Area (FTA) of the four countries.

The intention to create a five-country FTA had been officially announced at GUUAM’s summit last year. Since then, intra-GUUAM trade has decreased from levels that were modest in the first place. The agreement just signed is subject to ratification by the national parliaments, and amounts to a statement of political intent, pending the negotiation of specific terms by the signatory countries. Among the presidents at the summit, Kuchma evidenced the strongest interest in the FTA plan. This reflects Ukraine’s larger export potential, its perennial trade disputes with Russia, and its wariness–shared with the other GUUAM members, save Moldova–about politicizing the Eurasian Economic Community. Kuchma’s move in February of this year to request observer status for Ukraine in that group was one of his several election-eve feints in Moscow’s direction.

The FTA agreement aims to ensure “optimal conditions for the circulation of goods in the Europe-Caucasus-Asia transport corridor,” thus helping to link the signatory countries eventually with the EU. Although the EU originated the TRACECA transit project, Brussels has been failing year after year to fund it anywhere near the levels envisaged or to provide a political impetus for action.

The United States government, for its part, encourages both TRACECA and the FTA idea. In a letter to the GUUAM summit participant Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage expressed support for GUUAM cooperation on transit projects, regional security and the FTA proposal. Present at the FTA agreement’s signing, the U.S. assistance coordinator for Europe and Eurasia, Ambassador William Taylor, offered financial and technical aid for GUUAM projects designed to promote a free trade area. Taylor was cited as remarking that the FTA proposal has far greater potential than its CIS counterparts.

Kuchma, Aliev and Shevardnadze–along with Polish officials attending as observers–discussed the possibility of routing Caspian oil via Georgia and the Black Sea to Ukraine, Poland and further afield. Kyiv tends to regard this plan as one of GUUAM’s raisons d’etre. Ukraine has completed the oil-downloading terminal near Odessa and the pipeline from there to Brody on the Polish border. Poland, while favoring the plan, is reluctant to finance the pipeline’s section on its territory from Brody to Gdansk. Joint Ukrainian-Polish attempts to assemble an international consortium for the project are hampered by uncertainty regarding the volume of Caspian oil available for this export route. Azerbaijan’s oil output for the years ahead is largely committed already to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (Turkey) pipeline project, which constitutes the top priority for Azerbaijan, Turkey and the United States. The Odessa-Brody-Gdansk route would need a substantial volume of Kazakhstani oil, but the transit of that oil has been preempted by Russia for years to come (see Russia and Eurasia Review, Issue 3, July 2, 2002). The European Union, as the primary potential consumer of Caspian oil, has yet to clarify its intentions regarding the pipeline routes.

The summit participants avoided discussion of a pressing common problem–that of festering conflicts, secessions and presence of Russian forces on these countries’ territories. It was only Aliev who raised, however briefly, this set of issues affecting “three of our countries.” He pointed to the “unleashing of armed conflicts and aggressive separatism, the interference in the internal affairs of states, seizure of territories [and] illegal arms trade.” Aliev expressed his “deep concern over the lack of tangible progress toward peaceful resolution of these conflicts.” While Aliev named the issues, but not any countries, Shevardnadze–whose country most directly faces Russian and proxy pressures–used circumlocution for the issues themselves. The Georgian president proposed that GUUAM create an antiterrorist center, to be sited in Tbilisi and to coordinate its activities with those of the United States. Privately, Shevardnadze and Aliev expressed surprise to their Moldovan counterpart Voronin regarding his apparent acceptance of the “mediators'” draft document on how to resolve the Transnistria problem. Meanwhile, however, Voronin has backpedaled, declaring that while the document is valuable, it does need “rewriting.”

Representing the group’s smallest and economically least attractive country, Voronin seemed to seek influence through nuisance value and by touting his Moscow connection. In Moscow, the official news agencies and state-owned media played up Voronin’s remarks. He demanded imperatively that the pipeline for Caspian oil be routed via Moldova, warning obliquely that his country might otherwise downgrade its GUUAM role to that of an observer. Unlike Kuchma, Voronin has vested some genuine hopes in accession to CIS economic unions. Contradicting one of Taylor’s remarks (see above), Voronin declared that CIS “integration” holds fully as much economic promise as the planned FTA. Moreover, he cast doubt on the validity of decisions taken by GUUAM without Uzbekistan; but in the same breath he took a swipe at that country as “American-sponsored.” Voronin is on record as proposing observer status for Russia in GUUAM. Most recently, his improvised Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolae Dudau publicly proposed observer status in GUUAM for Brazil–a thought that awaits some explication. The Moldovan president is known to lack competent advisers and to often ignore recommendations from professionals in the Foreign Affairs Ministry. While GUUAM did experience a loss in Uzbekistan’s decision to “suspend active participation,” it would not feel any impact one way or the other if Moldova were to take a similar decision.

Kuchma, Shevardnadze and Aliev expressed the wish at this summit that Romania and Bulgaria join GUUAM, initially with observer status. As candidates for NATO and EU membership, Romania and Bulgaria can increase the group’s Western gravitation by joining. Zlenko outlined in broad terms the goals in the short-term as demonstrating GUUAM’s usefulness to Europe by contributing to stability and security in the GUUAM region, to the EU’s energy security, and to the creation of a reliable strategic corridor between Europe, the Caucasus and Asia. The group’s next summit–possibly under a new name–is scheduled to be held, also in Yalta, in July 2003.

Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow and long-time senior analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, formerly a senior research analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, is a specialist in the non-Russian former republics of the USSR, CIS affairs and ethnic conflicts.