On March 27, 2017, the heads of governments of the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development – GUAM (acronym standing for Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) member states gathered in Kiev for the first time in almost a decade since its 2008 summit in Batumi, Georgia. The regional grouping was established in 1997 with a long-term goal of integrating into the Euro-Atlantic organizations and counterbalancing the Russian dominance in the Black Sea region. However, in recent years, it seems that the organization has lacked unity in its geopolitical choice between Russia and the West despite the presence of the frozen conflicts on their territories involving the Kremlin. This year, the union celebrates its 20th anniversary and should redefine its purpose to make cooperation between its members more efficient.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 broke the established order in the Eurasian continent, thus requiring an establishment of a multilateral forum to facilitate solving a wide range of issues accompanying the period of the post-Soviet transition. To this end, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was established made up of 12 newly independent states. At the same time, within the CIS two separate groups of countries emerged, one (Belarus, Armenia and the Central Asian states) inclined towards Russia and the other comprising the states which later formed GUAM, oriented on forging partnership and institutional ties with the Trans-Atlantic community. All the GUAM members either refused to join the CIS Collective Security Treaty (CST) or as in the case of Uzbekistan, which was part of GUAM from 1999 to 2005 making it GUUAM, subsequently quit the CIS security arrangement. Instead, they pursued the NATO membership and have been active within NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. The single important factor that united the GUAM member states was their opposition to the Russian military and weaponry deployed on or near their territory (Valasek, 2000). Another goal of this union was the focus on promoting good governance and liberal values as well as closer economic ties as reflected in the decision to rename the organization in 2006 to the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development.
By looking at GUAM’s current activities, it can be argued that the organization has largely failed to achieve the goals enshrined in its charter documents. GUAM experienced some periods of activism in 2000s but, in general, the organization had limited impact in addressing the security issues. Inability of GUAM to rally joint support to Georgia in its military confrontation with Russia in August 2008 has fatally damaged the regional grouping (Kuzio, 2010). In fact, since 2008 GUAM has been largely inactive. Over recent years, the GUAM member states have also diverged in their security and foreign policy strategies. The main rationale behind the establishment of this union was joint opposition to the Russian hegemony in the region and a platform for appeals to the West. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has largely abandoned its pro-Western orientation, while Moldova after electing pro-Russian president Igord Dodon is somewhere in the middle with Georgia and Ukraine remaining fully committed. Thus, at present, Moldova continues to seek the EU, but not NATO, membership, while Ukraine and Georgia still see the NATO membership as a stepping stone to the membership in the EU (Kuzio, 2008). Azerbaijan has largely given up the idea of the European integration. Another area where the GUAM member states failed to cooperate was addressing their energy dependence on Russia. Except for Azerbaijan, all the member states were dependent on supplies of oil and gas either from or through Russia (Valasek, 2000). This provided significant leverage to Moscow for influencing domestic and foreign polices of these states. Although in recent years the situation has changed with the construction of the South Caucasus Pipeline, this has not taken place under the GUAM umbrella. The lack of consensus on many issues resulted in GUAM’s inability to function the way it was originally planned, so that requires from the organization to redefine its purpose.
The outcome of this year’s high level meeting in Kiev, where representatives of GUAM signed a protocol to the agreement on establishing a free trade area (FTA) within GUAM and discussed developing a transportation corridor, suggests that the member states recognize the need to find a common ground to make the organization more efficient. It seems that the regional grouping is currently attempting to move away from its strong anti-Russian agenda and instead look for other areas of cooperation. In this regard, the recent Chinese initiatives such as One Belt One Road (OBOR) and Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) could provide a fresh impetus for more active cooperation among the member states in the economic field (Niu, 2017). In fact, all the GUAM member states fall within the Silk Road Economic Belt, the land based component of OBOR. TITR, the railway that connects China with Europe through the territories of Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan bypassing Russia, provides necessary infrastructure and common tariffs that facilitate trade with the outside world. This route is of particular importance to Ukraine after the 2016 decision of Russia to ban the transit of Ukrainian goods through its territory. Therefore the establishment of the GUAM FTA and the development of OBOR provides an opportunity for expanded economic connectivity within the region.
Another area where Azerbaijan, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine can effectively cooperate under the framework of GUAM is their dealings with the EU. At present, all the member states are involved in the EU Eastern Partnership Program, while the latter three countries signed the association agreements with the EU. It is worth noting that they did not coordinate their strategies among themselves and pursued totally independent policies in the process of integrating into the EU. This lack of political unity can be seen from the strained relations between Georgia and Ukraine that existed until recently. After the new government in Kiev was elected following the Maidan revolution, no high-profile meetings between the Ukrainian and Georgian leaders took place mainly due to the appointment of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2013) and his associates to the senior posts in Ukraine, despite him being wanted in his home county. Now with the departure of Saakashvili from the position of the governor of Odessa there seems to be better conditions for coordination. As Kornely Kakachia, Professor of Political Science at the Tbilisi State University puts it, “if the countries promote themselves together, they would be able to impact the EU more and have greater chances of being heard by Brussels” (Romandash, 2016). Without Western assistance many of GUAM proposed reforms and various projects including the energy corridor from the Caspian Sea will exist only on paper.
As the only organization in the post-Soviet space with no Russian participation, GUAM played an important role in the uncertain 1990s to assist the member states in forging partnerships and institutional ties with the Western institutions. With the power asymmetry in favor of Moscow, these states could not cope with common problems and threats on their own. Therefore, from their perspective close integration with the West, in particular with NATO, had a security rationale to build fully independent states by resisting a perceived threat of the Russian expansionism in the region. However, the events that unfolded in the next two decades following its establishment suggest that the organization had limited success. The present lack of consensus on foreign policy strategies of its member states even calls into question GUAM’s utility today. This year’s summit in Kiev where the member states have agreed to establish the FTA is an attempt to revitalize the organization. In this regard, the Chinese economic initiatives in the region could be instrumental. In the political sphere, although the strength of their current pro-Western policies may vary, the unifying factors such as the Russian involvement in their territories and the signing of the association agreements with the EU can serve as a platform for future cooperation between the GUAM member states.
T. Valasek (2000). Military Cooperation between Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova in the GUUAM Framework. Caspian Studies Program. Policy Brief, [online].
Abulkhairkhan Zhunisbek is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He graduated from Abylai Khan Kazakh University of International Relations and World Languages with a Bachelor in International Relations.