With its first high-level meeting since 2008, the GUAM group of nations – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova – is apparently trying to make a comeback. But it is unclear to what extent the four countries have a common agenda: while some geopolitical shifts have brought them closer together, others have driven them apart.
On March 27, the prime ministers of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, and the deputy prime minister of Azerbaijan, met in Kyiv. It was the first such meeting in almost a decade, and the group appeared to try to move away from its former anti-Russian stance and embrace a more economic agenda. Participants agreed to implement a regional free trade agreement and develop a transportation corridor.
“That we are meeting today for the first time at the head-of-government level is a very clear sign that we are giving our cooperation the attention it deserves,” said Ukrainian PM Volodymyr Groysman at the meeting.
“The participants of the forum unanimously recognize that the organization needs a fresh impetus and more active approaches from different sectors,” added Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
The group was founded in 1997 as a regional bloc aimed at jointly standing up to Russian interference in their affairs, and was backed at the time by the United States and European Union.
“GUAM was the ‘nice’ guys’ club, a new axis of new states that somehow could stand up to the new Russia on familiar, post-Soviet terms, and count on the ‘International Community’ for support when push came to shove,” wrote veteran Caucasus analyst Thomas Goltz.
But the group’s unity weakened as some members sought to take a less confrontational approach toward Russia. Moldova’s president, Vladimir Voronin, skipped GUAM’s last summit in Batumi in 2008, and while he claimed it was for health reasons, a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks later indicated that “Moldova was trying to downplay GUAM participation in hopes of securing Russian support for a Transnistrian solution.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, although coming to power in the anti-Russian Orange Revolution, gradually softened his position toward Moscow; he criticized GUAM on the grounds that it “pursues a romantic, rather than a pragmatic policy.”
When the Euromaidan Revolution later took Ukraine back to a strongly anti-Russian foreign policy, ties remained strained with Georgia as a result of the new Ukrainian government’s embrace of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, as well as several members of Saakashvili’s team. The former Georgian president remains out of favor with Georgia’s incumbent leadership.
Now, though, there appear to be better conditions for cooperation. For one, with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, all four countries now are grappling with the fact of some part of their territory being under the control of (to varying degrees) Russia-backed separatists. “Unresolved conflicts in the GUAM region continue to impede political, economic and social development. In this regard, the GUAM voice should sound as loud as possible. All of us should more actively use the GUAM potential for gaining wider international support,” Kvirikashvili said at the late March gathering.
In addition, the departure of Saakashvili from power in the Odessa Region has enabled the return of tighter ties between Tbilisi and Kyiv. “Recently, relations between Ukraine and Georgia were not very warm, and now it looks like this is changing, and there’s a chance of reanimating GUAM,” said Maryna Vorotnyk, a regional analyst at the think-tank Ukrainian Prism.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin – who in 2014 spearheaded a failed proposal to change GUAM’s working language from Russian to English – visited Tbilisi April 20-21 and called for joining efforts toward European integration.
Azerbaijan, for its part, is interested in revitalizing GUAM as an economic cooperation organization, as well as a political platform that addresses the unresolved conflicts. “First and foremost, it is necessary to combine efforts to resolve existing conflicts in the GUAM area,” Altay Efendiyev, GUAM’s secretary general and an Azerbaijani diplomat, said in December.
“Its member countries must come up with a common position on many issues, in particular to resist aggression [and] occupation of the territories of the member states by other countries,” Efendiyev added.
But Efendiyev also has called for GUAM to increase its focus on trade and transportation. While Azerbaijani officials have touted regional transportation projects as evidence of GUAM’s effectiveness, others remain skeptical.
“The work on a transport corridor, and energy cooperation, has accelerated in bilateral formats (like between Georgia and Azerbaijan) and in multilateral formats (including Ukraine too), but this hasn’t happened under the GUAM umbrella,” one Azerbaijani analyst told EurasiaNet.org, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Azerbaijan’s declining interest in European integration also could call into question GUAM’s utility today. The original vision of GUAM saw it as a means for the participants to use mutual cooperation to draw closer to the European Union and NATO. But in recent years, Azerbaijan has largely abandoned those goals, with Georgia remaining firmly committed, and Ukraine and Moldova somewhere in the middle.
GUAM’s relevance to Georgia has declined as a result of the group’s inactivity and lack of clear vision for the future, and Prime Minister Kvirikashvili’s positive comments in Kyiv should be interpreted merely as an attempt to build post-Saakashvili ties with Ukraine, said Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics and a professor of Political Science at Tbilisi State University.
The group’s efforts to revive are hampered by the loss of strong US/EU support and the diverging approaches on engagement with Europe, he said: “Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova should seek new groupings under the EU tutelage, but it’s unclear what to do with Azerbaijan which seems to have no appetite for EU integration.”
Zaur Shiriyev is an Academy Associate at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).