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GUAM, not the island



The periphery of the former Soviet Union has been interested by recurring conflicts since its dissolution. In its Eastern and Southern (Caucasic) regions, the main flashpoints are Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, the Nagorno Karabakh region in Azerbaijan and of course Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine. The attempt of the Russian Federation to assert its influence in these regions is a common trait of all these conflicts. the nature of Russian involvement varies greatly from conflict to conflict, but the perception of the Russian threat is shared by all four of the interested states.

One way in which these former soviet states tried to react to Russian political-military influence is the creation of the GUAM international organization. The correlation between the increase in the organization’s activity and mounting Russian aggression towards its neighbours from 2008 until today are an important sign of the newfound geopolitical significance of GUAM.

After the USSR

Many of these conflicts started directly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union or shortly before, except for Ukraine. In 1988 the first clashes began in the Nagorno Karabakh region, but full-scale war between the now independent Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted in 1992 and ended in 1994 with the defeat of Azerbaijan and the de facto independence of the unrecognized Armenian Artsakh Republic. The conflict ended through the sole mediation of Russia and with the notable failure of the OSCE sponsored Minsk group, composed by France, Russia, and the US.

A similar situation occurred in Transnistria, where political conflict began brewing two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union and military conflict rapidly escalated after it.  Notably less violent than the first Nagorno Karabakh War, the conflict was between the Moldovan armed forces and the forces of the Russian speaking Transnistrian region, backed by Russia. the conflict ended with a separatist victory, the establishment of internationally unrecognized Transnistria and the continuation of Russian military presence in the country. It could be considered the more “frozen” of the 4 conflicts, due to the lack of significant episodes of violence in the aftermath of the war.

In Georgia tensions were (and are) centered around the ethnic divide in the mountains north of the country. There, after independence in 1991, some policies by then president Zviad Gamsakhurdia caused unrest in minorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Between 1991 and 1993 two connected conflicts erupted. One between secessionist in the two regions and the Gamsakhurdia government. the other began after a military coup at the end of 1991 deposed the president and civil war began between the military council led by Eduard Shevardnadze and supporters of the deposed president. both the separatist side and the new government were supported by Russia. in summer 1992 the ethnic conflict ended with a separatist victory and in 1994 the civil war ended with a Shevardnadze victory.

The transition in Ukraine was not violent. Some attrition came up regarding the status of the Crimean Peninsula, part of the Ukrainian SSR after a 1954 transfer. Those were mostly internal, on the political status of Crimea, but also with Russia, although not on the borders of the two republics but on the status of the Black Sea Fleet in the peninsula. These attritions were put to temporary rest by a series of treaties between Ukraine and Russia, notably the Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet and the Russian–Ukrainian Friendship Treaty.

Guam and renewed pressure

Given the conflictual relationship with Russia of 3 out of 4 of these countries and a desire by Ukraine to limit Russian influence, in 1997 these 4 countries created the GUAM international organization with the stated objective of strengthening cooperation among its member states, promoting regional stability and security, and advancing economic development and trade. The organization also aims to promote democratic values, protect human rights, and address issues such as energy security and transportation infrastructure. Although officially declaring to be wanting to pursue stronger ties with Russia, the organization emerged as a potential counterbalance to Russian influence in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions. GUAM also intends to pursue stronger bonds with the west and the European Union.

In the first years of activity the organization has accomplished little in terms of concrete achievements, limited by lack of clear common goals. In 2006 Zardust Alizade, Azerbaijani opposition politician and journalist, expressed doubts about the alliance's prospects for the future. In the face of renewed Russian aggressiveness on the two regions, starting in 2006 with the invasion of Georgia and in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, this has begun to change. After it the official language of meetings changed from Russian to English and in 2017 the partner countries established agreements for a free trade area. In 2020 the second Nagorno Karabakh war further added to reality of a changing political landscape in the two regions.

War in Ukraine and tying the black sea to Europe.

The 2022 Invasion of Ukraine will probably be altering drastically the identity of GUAM. The geopolitical significance of the organization has greatly increased. GUAM has condemned Russian aggression and with all its members engaged in conflict with Russia or Russian allies, it could emerge as a significant regional player in the black sea, particularly given its importance to Europe. With European countries searching for alternative suppliers of natural gas, Azerbaijan has become extremely important with its great gas reserves. Since two of its three neighbours have hostile relations, gas flow from Azerbaijan necessarily has to pass to Georgia. The importance of European energy security passes through GUAM. Adding to this, Moldavia and Ukraine are already EU candidates and Georgia has expressed strong interest in joining.

There are some problems though, especially regarding democracy and human rights. Although one of the stated objectives of the organization is democracy promotion, Azerbaijan is an autocracy centered around Ilham Aliyev, president since 2003 after succeeding its father.  In the ongoing conflict with Armenia, Azerbaijan has been clearly the aggressor in 2020 and in the ongoing blockade of the ethnic Armenian enclave. It has leveraged its stronger bargaining position with Europe, being one of its important gas suppliers, and the fact that Armenia’s strongest ally, Russia, is currently focused on the war in Ukraine. It has to be seen if the EU will manage to reconcile the need for natural gas and the protection of human rights and democracy in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict in its relationship with Azerbaijan and GUAM.

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