Staunton, November 21 – All eyes are now on the EU Vilnius Summit and on whether Ukraine and some of her neighbors will sign association agreements with the European Union, a step that Russian President Vladimir Putin views as a threat to Moscow’s position in the former Soviet space.
But even before that meeting takes place next week, another move on the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard threatens Russian dominance there and perhaps almost as fundamentally: the leaders of Azerbaijan and Ukraine are seeking to revive GUAM by having Turkey join that economic and political grouping of their two countries, Georgia and Moldova.
There are two reasons for that. On the one hand, GUAM was originally created in 2001 as a challenge to the Moscow-dominated CIS. And on the other, Turkish membership would both “violate” the borders of the former Soviet space and ensure that Turkic countries in Central Asia would look at GUAM with new interest.
If such countries did join GUAM – and Uzbekistan did earlier but withdrew – that would mean that it would have within its ranks a majority of the CIS countries, an arrangement that could give GUAM new influence, and that Turkey would be able to use GUAM to supplement its own drive to extend Ankara’s influence eastward.
These are only possibilities as of now, but an event last Sunday suggests that all of them are more likely than anyone would have thought only a week ago. On that date, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made his first post-election foreign visit to Kyiv rather than to Moscow as many had expected.
While there, he and his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovich, discussed “the possibility of the revival” of GUAM by including Turkey within that grouping of states, according to an article by Tatyana Ivzhenko in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” (ng.ru/cis/2013-11-19/1_guam.html).
She cites a Russian analyst as saying that there is “no anti-Russian meaning” in this but at the same time points out that both Ukraine and Azerbaijan are “interested in the creating of a balance in their interrelationships with the West and Russia.” Neither has been willing to join the Customs Union; rather, both want to have good relations with CIS countries and the West.
Vladimir Fesenko, head of the Penta Analytic Center, says that what took place in Kyiv is part and parcel of the repositioning of Azerbaijan and indeed other post-Soviet states after what they anticipate may turn out to be fundamental shifts in the geopolitical situation at the Vilnius summit.
Moreover, as Ivzhenko adds, economic ties between Kyiv and Baku are deepening with Ukraine now planning to buy far more gas from Azerbaijan now that it has decided to free itself from dependence on Russian gas supplies. Some Russian analysts doubt Baku has enough gas to allow Ukraine to do that, but however that may be, Azerbaijan could be a major supplier and that could change the political balance in the region.
If economics is the foundation of the new Azerbaijani and Ukrainian interest in the revival of GUAM, politics is how it is playing out. According to Konstantin Bondarenko of th Kyiv Institute of Ukrainian Politics, the two countries are “interested in cooperation in all directions” as strategic partners.
The Ukrainian expert notes that both Ukraine and Azerbaijan are part of the Eastern Partnership and GUAM. While they benefit from the former, they hold the whip hand in the latter and can promote the expansion of that organization in ways that the West will support as a means of influencing the future development of Eastern Europe and the CIS.
As a result, Ivzhenko concludes, “for Ukraine, this [GUAM move] may become a way out of its [current] situation however the EU summit in Vilnius turns out.” But although she does not say so, a revived GUAM will play an equally large role for Azerbaijan, Central Asia, Turkey and Russia.
For Azerbaijan, it would mean simultaneously participation in a larger grouping of states that could help it maintain a balance against Russian pressure and expanded ties with Turkey and Turkey’s efforts to extend its influence further into the Caucasus and Central Asia. For Central Asia, it help them resist Russian power and link them for closely with Turkey.
For Turkey, it would be a natural next step and give Ankara another channel of spreading its influence. But for Russia, it would constitute a challenge to its dominance of the former Soviet space so severe that Moscow will undoubtedly do everything it can to make sure that the letter “T” and a number of other letters are not added to GUAM.