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Ukraine's elections and future of GUAM, CU Issue 63, February 10, 2010

Is GUAM – the regional organisation comprising Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova – relevant, or even functional? The question has been asked for years, since the bloc’s birth in the late 1990s, but since Ukraine’s presidential elections GUAM’s future has been thrown seriously into doubt.

The initial impetus behind the formation of GUAM was to promote democracy and the rule of law, to strengthen regional stability and cooperation, to facilitate an energy corridor from the Caspian to Europe, and to deepen integration with Europe (GUAM.org).

The bloc was also designed to support the territorial integrity of the four founding members, all of whom have active or potential separatist regions: Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia; Azerbaijan with Nagorno-Karabakh; Moldova with Transdniestra; and Ukraine with the Crimea. Consequently, GUAM’s Charter emphasises the principles of territorial integrity, the inviolability of internationally-recognised borders and non-interference.

These principles, and GUAM’s commitment to European integration, has led the bloc to be viewed as an ‘anti-Russian grouping’. This is an oversimplification. Alongside its partnership relations with the West Azerbaijan has been cautious to maintain a good working relationship with Moscow, and Moldova has been generally pro-Russian, recognising that the Kremlin’s goodwill is essential to settling the Transdniestra dispute. Georgia and Ukraine only began to seriously shift away from Moscow after their ‘colour revolutions’, in 2003 and 2004 respectively, which brought pro-Western forces to power.

It is nonetheless true that GUAM is at least a partial alternative to the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose grouping of post-Soviet states. As GUAM was established, for instance, it received a visible public backing from the US and the European Union. And Uzbekistan, notoriously flexible in its geopolitical orientation, joined GUAM in 1999 during a pro-Western phase but left in 2005 after its relations with Russia became warmer.

The internal divergence within GUAM has undermined the bloc’s existence from the middle of the last decade, when Kiev and Tbilisi began to vociferously emphasise their aspirations to NATO and the EU. The group has also been impeded by its geographical divisions.

Ukraine has been pushing for the creation of GUAM peacekeeping forces for several years, but Moldova and Azerbaijan have been extremely sceptical of the idea, and Georgia’s enthusiasm has been tepid, reflecting uncertainties about the ability of GUAM to keep the peace (Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 19 2007). After the August war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko visited Tbilisi in a show of solidarity with Georgian President Saakashvili and expressed his displeasure with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based under a long-term lease in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.

This personal and geopolitical partnership now appears to be broken. In the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election on January 17, President Yushchenko polled just 5% of the vote. The second round was bitterly contested by his erstwhile ally in the Orange Revolution, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and their former rival Viktor Yanukovich. Mr Yanukovich’s victory, although narrow enough to provoke threats of a ‘new Orange revolution’ by Ms Tymoshenko, is more or less guaranteed (BBC, February 8).

Mr Yanukovich’s ascent to the presidency will have significant ramifications for Ukraine and for the region. Although he will likely maintain Kiev’s pursuit of European Union membership, a Yanukovich administration will almost certainly call a halt to the NATO application process, as part of a wider strategy of forging closer ties with Moscow.

Georgia has therefore been watching carefully. Mr Yanukovich’s election may rupture the close bilateral relationship between the two countries, leaving Tbilisi more or less alone in its NATO membership efforts in the Black Sea region. It may also call into question the future of GUAM (Georgian Times, January 25).

Which raises the obvious question: would GUAM’s irrelevance or even dissolution matter? In a geopolitical sense, probably not. The member states have now radically different foreign policy goals, priorities, and capabilities. With regard to energy transit, GUAM has achieved little, and the only successful part of the potential link – the Baku-Tbilisi axis – functions perfectly well on a bilateral basis.

Thus, the transfer of power in Ukraine coupled with internal differences within the bloc, Moscow’s assertive policy of courting the member states and the West’s increasing indifference (especially, in the context of US attempts to “push the reset button” with Russia) will inevitably lead to the debilitation of GUAM. However, the bloc will most likely continue its existence, though reducing itself to formal meetings and geopolitically inessential fields of cooperation. 

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