FROM GUAM TO GUUAM: A GROWING CENTRIFUGAL FORCE IN THE CIS “GUAM,” the four-country group of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, has welcomed a fifth member country–Uzbekistan–thereby extending into Asia. The enlargement should reinforce the capacity of this group–now “GUUAM”–to promote the member countries’ common interests and provide a counterweight to Russia within and outside the CIS. Ukraine in Eastern Europe and Uzbekistan in Central Asia form the two poles of what even mainstream Moscow observers disapprovingly describe as an axis of states that count on Western support to prevent a reassertion of Russian influence.
VENUE SYMBOLIZES POLICY CHOICE
Presidents Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine, Haidar Aliev of Azerbaijan, Petru Lucinschi of Moldova and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan announced the latter country’s accession at a special meeting in Washington on April 24, during NATO’s anniversary summit. The venue and setting were doubly significant: first, for dramatizing Moscow’s failure to persuade the CIS countries to fall into line with Russian policy toward NATO; and second–just as important–for symbolizing the five governments’ strategic orientation toward the West.
The five presidents conferred behind closed doors and declined to brief the media. They issued a joint statement expressing readiness to expand cooperation with NATO in the framework of the Partnership for Peace program and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, thus distancing themselves from Moscow, which has suspended its participation–however meager in the first place–in these programs. The five presidents’ statement asserted that GUUAM is “not directed against any particular country or group of countries”–an assurance intended for Russia and its loyalists in the CIS, particularly Armenia, whom the GUUAM countries would be ill-advised to abandon to Moscow’s military embrace.
The GUUAM presidents pledged to reinforce cooperation among their countries in international organizations and forums, specifically those concerned with international security and conflict resolution. The five countries would jointly promote resolution of conflicts and crises on the basis of:
–The territorial integrity of existing states and inviolability of their internationally recognized borders–these principles militate against the “common state” solutions pursued by Moscow in Transdniester, Abkhazia and Karabakh.
–Rejection of “aggressive separatism” and “ethnic intolerance” (problems that confront in one way or another Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan, the latter two having experienced ethnic cleansing of the majority population in parts of their territories).
–Resistance to “religious extremism” (a point undoubtedly introduced by Uzbekistan whose leadership grapples with that challenge).
–Preventing accumulation of arms in the theaters of conflict–a problem posed by Russian militarization of Armenia and the unwanted Russian troops in Moldova and Georgia.
Apart from conflict-resolution issues, the five presidents emphasized GUUAM’s economic function of promoting unimpeded East-West trade and the creation of transport corridors to link Europe directly with the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Karimov commented after the meeting that a certain country, “driven by imperial ambitions and strategic interests in Asia, seeks to thwart those projects” because they bypass that particular country.
FLEXIBILITY BEFORE INSTITUTIONALIZATION
GUUAM remains–like GUAM–a consultative grouping not bound by any treaty obligations. Prior to the Washington meeting, the five countries had considered codifying their relationship in a formal document. The draft under consideration had stipulated economic and diplomatic cooperation, leaving out military cooperation which remains a matter for bilateral agreements. Ultimately the five countries agreed, at least for the time being, to forego a formal document in the interest of their national and collective flexibility.
Institutionalization of GUUAM is a matter of discussion within the group. Azerbaijan has taken the lead in this respect with suggestions to hold periodic summits and to create a chairmanship which would rotate among the heads of state in alphabetical order.
CIS COLLECTIVE SECURITY TREATY ABANDONED
Virtually on the eve of their attendance at the NATO summit, three of the GUUAM countries–Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan–irrevocably quit the CIS Collective Security Treaty, also known as the Tashkent Treaty after the venue of the 1992 founding conference. The treaty expired on April 20, 1999 for the countries not signing a protocol which prolongs the treaty’s validity. On that date, a Working Group for the Adaptation of the CIS Collective Security Treaty met amid utmost discretion in Moscow. The Russian side was still hoping against hope that Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan would use this last opportunity to sign the prolongation protocol. However, those three countries declined to attend the Moscow meeting and are now–officially and unambiguously–outside the framework of the treaty. They had clearly signaled that intention recently. Azerbaijan and Georgia had been press-ganged into the treaty in the first place, Ukraine and Moldova had never joined it, and Uzbekistan completed a gradual if full reversal of its earlier policy. Tashkent abandoned the Tashkent treaty–a telling symptom of the unraveling of the CIS and the emergence of new alignments outside the Russian orbit.
GROWING COOPERATION WITH NATO
Returning to Tbilisi on April 28 from Washington, Shevardnadze indicated for the first time in public that accession to NATO represents an operational goal of Georgia’s foreign policy. He told a news conference that “we still have a long path to travel in order to join NATO, [but] it may happen sooner than we imagine.” The president called for an expansion of Georgia’s involvement in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program which, he implied, represents a stage along that path. Georgia thus becomes the second among CIS countries–after Azerbaijan and less explicitly than its neighbor–to set that goal for what appears to be the medium rather than the long term. Among the other members of GUUAM, Ukraine is actively involved in military cooperation with NATO under the Charter for Distinctive Partnership; and has signed during the NATO summit an agreement to turn the Yavoriv military range into an exercise center for troops of NATO and partner countries.
RUSSIA AND WEST: COMMON GROUND ON KOSOVO?
Nearly two weeks of frenetic diplomatic maneuvering aimed at brokering a settlement of the conflict in Kosovo finally bore some fruit on May 6, when Western leaders agreed with Russia on a joint approach to the crisis. The agreement was embodied in a joint statement issued by the G-7–the Group of Seven leading industrial democracies plus Russia–following a meeting of G-7 foreign ministers in Germany. While underscoring that a full diplomatic settlement of the Kosovo conflict is still a long ways away, Western leaders nevertheless hailed the G-7 statement as a “step forward” in that process. They also portrayed it as an indication that Moscow had in large part accepted the core demands that NATO has placed on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for an end to the conflict. And that, they hoped, would increase both Belgrade’s diplomatic isolation and the international pressure on Yugoslav leaders to comply with NATO’s wishes.
The May 6 statement was the culmination of a diplomatic initiative launched by the West during NATO’s April 23-24 fiftieth anniversary summit in Washington. Alliance leaders decided at that time on a two-sided approach to the Kosovo conflict. On the one hand, they reiterated the backing of alliance members for air strikes against Yugoslavia and moved also to increase the intensity of the air campaign itself. Simultaneously, they made an overture to Moscow, restating the alliance’s desire both to reestablish friendly relations with Russia and to involve Moscow more fully in the diplomatic effort to end the conflict. Inherent in that effort was a belief that the Kremlin might be persuaded to abandon its nearly unqualified support for Milosevic and to move closer to the NATO camp: that is, to accept the demands on which NATO had conditioned a halt to the air campaign against Yugoslavia.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin had already begun a tentative move in that direction. His appointment on April 14 of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russia’s special envoy for the Kosovo crisis signaled–at least in part–a desire by the Kremlin to begin mending fences with the West over Kosovo. The move also had clear political implications in Russia. Chernomyrdin immediately adopted a moderate tone with regard to the Balkans which contrasted sharply with the jingoist Cold War-style rhetoric streaming from Yeltsin’s nationalist and communist opposition. More to the point, perhaps, Chernomyrdin’s more measured approach to the Balkans crisis also contrasted with the more hardline stance taken by Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, his protege, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and a host of Russian Defense Ministry officials. The Chernomyrdin appointment and Russian policy toward Kosovo thus became part of the broader political struggle in Russia between Yeltsin and his increasingly powerful prime minister.
CHERNOMYRDIN AS MEDIATOR
The series of diplomatic events which led directly to the May 6 G-8 statement appeared to have been triggered by a telephone conversation between Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton on April 25. Although the NATO alliance had flatly rejected a peace plan drafted by Chernomyrdin during talks with Milosevic in Belgrade on April 15, Clinton decided after the April 25 conversation with Yeltsin to dispatch U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to Moscow for talks with Russian leaders. Those consultations, which took place on April 26, opened the diplomatic floodgates: In the several days that followed a host of top Western officials followed Talbott to Moscow for talks on Kosovo. Chernomyrdin, in turn, embarked on a tour of Western capitals which included stops in Bonn and Rome. On April 30 he traveled yet again to Belgrade. Then, on May 3-4 he held a series of lengthy talks with Clinton administration officials in Washington and met also with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York.
Few details of those talks were made public, however, and despite vague claims by Chernomyrdin that some progress had been made, there was little to indicate that Russia was drawing closer to Western positions on Kosovo. The two sides seemed still to be divided on several key issues, including especially Moscow’s demand for an immediate cessation to the NATO bombing campaign and Russia’s unwillingness to back Western plans for the deployment of a NATO-led military force in a post-settlement Kosovo. Russian leaders also continued to voice their opposition to calls by NATO for an oil embargo against Belgrade.
Despite such conflicting signals, the G-7 statement issued on May 6 suggested that Moscow and the West had managed to find at least some common ground on Kosovo during Chernomyrdin’s many consultations with Western leaders. The very vagueness of the statement, however, and the fact that it skated over several key differences between Russia and the West, provides equally strong evidence that the agreement is a tenuous one. The G-7 statement is likely, for example, to generate considerable criticism in Moscow, where any sign of an effort by Russia to accommodate the West is sure to be interpreted loudly as a sell-out of Belgrade. Moreover, even if the West has managed to narrow its differences with Russia, it is unclear whether that will have any impact on the behavior of Yugoslav leaders in Belgrade. Although there were signs that Milosevic might also be seeking a way out of the current conflict, there was little to suggest that he was prepared to accept what the West has said are its nonnegotiable demands for an end to the air campaign.
RUSSIAN POLITICS: THE KREMLIN TAKES ANOTHER HIT
The last fortnight saw the Kremlin working hard to regain the political initiative following a vote by the Federation Council–the upper house of Russia’s parliament, made up of regional heads–not to accept the resignation of Yuri Skuratov, Russia’s prosecutor general.
The council’s surprise 79-61 vote in favor of Skuratov, whom President Boris Yeltsin suspended back in early April, was unlikely ultimately to save the disgraced chief prosecutor. It was, however, almost universally interpreted as a huge blow to the power and prestige of the Russian head of state, particularly coming as it did, not from the opposition-minded leftists of the State Duma, but from the once-loyal regional leaders. It was all the more insolent given that Yeltsin had, prior to the vote, heavily courted the council’s members, calling them the most important group among Russia’s political elite and promising them new autonomy and a host of other privileges.
To make the sting even worse, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov–to whom the Kremlin was reaching out after a long period of frosty relations–is rumored to have been one of the key players who worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Skuratov vote would go against the Kremlin. The increasing independence of the regional barons was particularly alarming given their efforts to form their own electoral blocs–such as Samara Governor Konstantin Titov’s Voice of Russia and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shamiev’s All Russia–the latter of which announced it intended to team up with Luzhkov’s Fatherland movement.
To top off the unpleasant news for the Kremlin, Luzhkov and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, according to some reports, were beginning to move toward consummating their long-rumored “soyuz.” One leading weekly newspaper, Interfax-Vremya, quoted anonymous top Kremlin officials as saying that Luzhkov’s Fatherland and Shamiev’s All Russia might back Primakov as their candidate in next year’s presidential vote. Luzhkov would be Primakov’s prime minister.
While it is difficult to know what riled the Kremlin most–Skuratov’s reported list of corrupt officials and their Swiss bank accounts was certainly yet another source of fear and loathing–there was little question that Yeltsin and his inner circle was indeed riled, particularly at Primakov. The media continued to be rife with unnamed Kremlin sources putting forward the names of all the prime minister’s potential successors. Other officials, like first deputy Kremlin administration chief Oleg Sysuev, warned that the president could take tough actions in response to a vote by the State Duma in favor of impeachment. While Sysuev did not specify these actions, his off-the-record brethren did: they warned that Primakov and/or his leftist deputies, First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov and Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Kulik would get the ax in response to a vote to impeach.
CABINET CHANGES THREATENED
Apparently in order to show he wasn’t fooling around, Yeltsin decided to make an example of another cabinet member–First Deputy Prime Minister Vadim Gustov, the former Leningrad Oblast governor. Gustov, who was generally viewed as a do-nothing minister–except when it came to pushing boondoggle government projects profitable to his old constituency–was sacked. More important, however, was the choice of his replacement–Sergei Stepashin, interior minister and a veteran Yeltsin loyalist.
Along with the obvious symbolism of making Russia’s top cop one of Primakov’s top deputies, Stepashin’s appointment as first deputy prime minister had a more practical dimension. Russia’s law on government states that if a prime minister steps down, or if the head of state sacks him, he can be replaced by one of the deputy prime ministers, who can serve as acting prime minister for two months without being approved by the State Duma. This means that, should Yeltsin decide to sack Primakov, Stepashin will be poised to step in. At the end of two months, Yeltsin could put up either Stepashin or an equally unacceptable candidate before the Duma, and if this candidate is rejected three times, Yeltsin can dissolve the lower house and call new elections. This would buy Yeltsin a lot of time.
And while some observers said the Kremlin simply aimed to “tame” Primakov by surrounding him with a new team made up of Yeltsin loyalists and liberals, one particular incident suggested Primakov’s days were numbered. During a May 5 Kremlin meeting, Yeltsin demonstratively asked Stepashin to come sit next to him and Orthodox Patriarch Aleksei II. As the television cameras rolled, Yeltsin was also seen scowlingly upbraiding Primakov and interrupting his prepared remarks.
The next day, Primakov’s press secretary reported the prime minister was at his dacha recovering from his chronic back pain.