Vol. 1, No. 16 (September 15, 2008)

GUAM after Georgia: More important than ever or soon to die?

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
This is a defining moment in the history of GUAM, one more important than the initial agreement that launched this regional grouping a decade ago, more difficult than the accession and departure of Uzbekistan from its ranks, and more uncertain than any time before, with the possibility that Russian actions in Georgia will make GUAM a more significant body than it has ever been before and the threat that those same actions will result in the death of GUAM as a player in the geopolitics of Eurasia.
On the one hand, Moscow’s invasion of Georgia and Georgia’s decision to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) opens the door to the possibility that GUAM as one of the most important organizational alternatives will become more important, either by attracting new members or perhaps even more importantly by serving as a model for the emergence of other regional groupings within Eurasia.
There are at least five ways in which these positive outcomes might occur.
First, the United States and the European Union may increase their political investment in GUAM, seeing it as a useful tool for countering Russian influence, a development that will be more likely if GUAM can develop more bilateral ties with countries like Poland and Japan beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union.

Second, with Georgia’s exit from the CIS and with Kazakhstan’s declaration that Tbilisi’s move will not have any consequences for bilateral ties, more countries, starting with Ukraine may leave the CIS, and some of them may look to GUAM as a possible new home.

Third, even if these countries do not make that choice, they are certain to consider GUAM’s principles and history as a model for what they might do elsewhere.  Indeed, it is conceivable that there could be a series of multiple, overlapping mini-GUAMs that would contribute to the further decomposition of the post-Soviet space.

Fourth, the four countries now in GUAM may decide not to articulate any NATO Article Five type accord but agree to speak out in common whenever they are threatened.  Ukraine’s backing of Georgia is a model of what this might look like, but for GUAM to succeed, its members will have to speak with a more united voice in defense of one another.

And fifth, the multilateral experience of the GUAM states may lead to the creation of a variety of new institutions, including peacekeeping units, that will make it a more attractive partner for other countries in the region and for the Western powers who will be interested in investing political capital in a group of countries that understands both the nature of the Russian threat and what it takes to counter it.
And on the other hand, Moscow’s invasion of Georgia and Georgia’s apparent inability to attract the kind of support in the West that that would not only force Moscow to retreat to the status quo ante but also prompt the Kremlin to disavow the use of force against its neighbors means that GUAM may rapidly become a dead letter, an interesting but remarkably short-lived artifact of the period between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the return of Russian imperial ambitions.
There are at least five ways in which these negative outcomes would be likely.
First and most important, the Russian invasion of Georgia changes the rules of the game.  For the first time since 1991, every post-Soviet state other than Russia has to deal with the reality that the use of force is not off the table, that Moscow is willing to end its military across international boundaries.  That inevitably will promote in some countries a greater willingness to defer to Moscow – Russia’s goal in all this – and the kind of hyperbolic nationalism based on an appeal to do whatever it takes to promote national survival.  Neither of those developments will dispose countries in GUAM to expand cooperation; indeed, such attitudes, especially if they divide the member states as seems likely, will help kill it.
Second, it is an unfortunate reality that all four of the GUAM states have on their territories what the Russians have called frozen conflicts.  Moscow will certainly play up this to divide the alliance, promising as it did in mid-August that it would support Chisinau against Tiraspol if Moldova remained committed to the CIS.  And because of Russian power, Moscow’s decision to support now one and now another of these countries will place severe strains on the alliance by sparking suspicions that one or another member is getting a better deal by selling out the other three.
Third, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, a GUAM country, many both within the countries of the grouping and others outside it are going to ask what this alliance means?  And why should we have any faith in it?  Like a religion, when no one believes in an alliance any more, it is dead, regardless of the meetings that its operatives may hold.  Fewer people believe in GUAM today than did a month ago; if that decline continues, it is difficult to see how the grouping could survive.
Fourth, the achievement of one of the primary functions of GUAM at least from the point of view of the West – the organization and support of the export of Caspian hydrocarbons – is almost certainly in trouble.  Either the oil and gas will now flow through Russia giving Moscow leverage, through Iran giving the West problems, or flow through Baku-Ceyhan but with that route increasingly under Russian influence or even control.  In such circumstances, the foundation of GUAM will crumble, and many in the West first and then in GUAM itself will ask why there is any reason to continue.
And fifth, this group, which was created by one set and even one generation of leaders, may not fit with the plans of new leaders and a new generation.  They will see GUAM not as a mistake but as something of the past, and they will seek to create something new, possibly broader, possibly not, but in any case something where GUAM would no longer be at the center of the calculations of these countries.
What then is the likely future of GUAM?  No one can say for sure, but three things are fairly obvious.  First, the future of GUAM will depend not only on its members alone; it will reflect both Russian actions and the West’s response, two things that are difficult to predict.  Second, the future of the organization will depend importantly on the ability of its current members to attract new ones, especially those beyond the old Soviet borders.  If that happens, the group will certainly survive; if it doesn’t, there is a much greater chance that it won’t.  And third, GUAM’s future is to a greater extent in the hands of the new generation of leaders who have come to power in these countries.  If they are prepared to devote more attention to GUAM and to give it new tasks and meaning, it will survive.  But if they assume that they need not worry about this future, then GUAM won’t have one.