Ukraine's Regional Politics: The Case of GUUAM
By William Gleason
"From the beginning of Ukraine's independence, it was obvious that Ukraine is a medium-sized state whose foreign policy interests are largely that of a regional nature, remarked Oleksandr Pavliuk, Kolasky Exchange Fellow, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies; Visiting Scholar, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto; Director, Kyiv Centre of the EastWest Institute; and Advisory Council Member, Kennan Institute, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 12 February 2001. Nowhere are those interests more important or more challenging than with GUUAM, the regional constellation of five countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) formed in 1997 to explore mutual goals and needs in the post-Soviet space.
According to Pavliuk, prior to GUUAM, Ukraine's regional ambition centered mostly on the development of closer ties with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and to positioning Ukraine in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet, due to the difficulties of Ukraine's domestic transformation, not to mention Ukraine's cultural and psychological characteristics that differ dramatically from many other states in this region (i.e., Poland and the Czech Republic), Ukraine has so far failed to become an integral part of Central Europe.
Later on, in 1997, the southern or Black Sea dimension was added to Ukraine's priorities in regional politics. Ukraine's strategic interests in the Black Sea region stemmed from this region's geographic location, its geostrategic importance, its economic and trade potential, as well as from the vital need to get access to the Caspian Sea's energy resources to diversify its energy supplies.
This new dimension of Ukraine's regional politics, Pavliuk underscored, was manifested in the country's leading role in the creation and development of GUAM initially, and then GUUAM, with the addition of Uzbekistan. Ukraine's interest in GUUAM was twofold: first, for Ukraine, especially in 1997-98, GUUAM became a kind of important political means of asserting itself as a regional leader, something that Ukraine failed to achieve in Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, since independence, Ukraine has played a critical role in sustaining geopolitical pluralism in the post-Soviet space, leading a group of counties that objected to the transformation of the CIS from a loose grouping to a supranational and closely integrated military alliance.
Secondly, and over time, increasingly important for Ukraine, GUUAM was seen as an institution that could become an instrument to deepen economic and energy cooperation, with priority given to gaining access to Caspian oil and gas. Heavily dependent on energy supplies from Russia, Ukraine put great hopes on being chosen as a transit country for the export of Caspian oil to Europe, Pavliuk noted.
Unfortunately, over the past two years Kyiv's capacities to help GUUAM withstand Russian pressure have decreased. Ukraine's persistent economic difficulties as well as its political weakness and vulnerability to Russian pressure have all affected Kyiv's ability and maybe its willingness to play its political role, Pavliuk said.
These challenges led to discussions within and among member states about GUUAM's priorities and its future development. Should it develop primarily into an energy-economic grouping or remain a framework for political cooperation and consultation? Should it be institutionalized or remain a loose consultative framework? Should it reach out to new members or focus on internal strengthening, Pavliuk asked.
Pavliuk argued that it is necessary and important that GUUAM retains its regional political and security dimension. At the same time, the value and importance of foreign policy coordination might decline over time if GUUAM fails to compliment this cooperation with the practical energy component. It is energy transportation, notably the location of an oil pipeline, that is likely to be a major determinant of GUUAM's future. This is the issue that could either enhance or decrease the commonality of interests of GUUAM members.
Another important question is to what extent Ukraine is able and would stay committed to GUUAM cooperation. At present GUUAM becomes a barometer of Ukraine's further development and a kind of barometer of Ukraine's foreign policy in process. Given Ukraine's current domestic situation and its international standing and image, GUUAM remains perhaps the only foreign policy area where Ukraine can stay proactive, display initiative, and ultimately play an international role corresponding to the country's potential.
Pavliuk concluded by pointing to the need for support by the West of GUUAM, and in particular by the new U.S. administration. Only last year did the U.S. government start to show more attention to GUUAM, recognizing that it (GUUAM) has already contributed, and potentially can contribute, both to strengthening each of GUUAM's members internally and to bolstering regional security and stability in a region stretching from Central Europe, with Ukraine and Moldova, to Central Asia, with Uzbekistan. From this point of view, the support of the west and of the U.S. towards GUUAM would affect not only the fate of GUUAM, but also would help define the direction of Ukraine's foreign policy and, in the widest sense, Ukraine's development.