Azerbaijan might be the champion that GUAM needs

International organizations remain key venues where states with overlapping interests try to cooperate and find common ground. Such organizations range from all-encompassing global organizations to small thematic institutions. In order to remain operationally relevant and on the agenda, they may need to seek ways of reviving organizational structures with fresh methods and ideas that fit their interests and values.

GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development is an organization with a unique membership of four post-Soviet states – every of which has gone through identical turmoil in their recent history. GUAM – which takes its name from initials of the member states – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova – promised a great deal of hope when it was first conceived. GUAM Charter includes “strengthening international and regional security and stability,” as well as “intensification of political interaction and practical cooperation in the fields of mutual interest,” among its core purposes. GUAM’s publicity and day-to-day role have been focused on rather thematic areas mostly, however organization can be revitalized and cooperation within it might be include important topics such as post-conflict restoration, something that is crucial for all of the member states.

GUAM is known to be aimed at sectoral cooperation, rather than being an all-out alliance that takes a unified stance at every possible platform. In spite of this, GUAM members were unanimous when it came to common problems, such as condemnation of military occupation of their respective territories in various platforms. Each of GUAM member states suffered or continue to suffer from the same type of problem. Territorial conflicts with the final outcome of military occupation marred all spheres of life in Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Ukraine (Crimea and Donbas), Azerbaijan (Karabakh) and Moldova (Transnistria).

GUAM can deliver efficient outcomes if its functioning might be tailored to the realities of the day. Common historical past, values and interests can bring enormous opportunities to be explored for the prosperity of all member states.

First of all, GUAM needs a champion country that would both help member states create a common and acceptable vision and vigorously promote it across the region and globe. Appointing or electing champion country has not been a very wide practice among international organizations; however, it can be very effective if pinpointing right causes or initiatives to target. Champion country or countries can take the leading position in advocating specific measures or implementation of obligations set out by agreements of different sorts. UNESCO and UN Network on Migration are among the institutions that utilize champion countries practice in order to reach hastened and effective implementation of initiative and agreements. Although GUAM’s daily proceedings function on the basis of yearly rotation principle, having a champion country who sets examples for increasing organization’s appeal could be a long-needed way of boosting GUAM’s appeal and effectiveness.

Azerbaijan, with a recent positive track record of effectively putting an end to decades-long military occupation of its sovereign territories by Armenia, might be the right candidate for championing GUAM in possible platforms. Many calls were made by expert community to thoroughly study Azerbaijan’s experience of military victory. Its better-trained military forces and technologically superior weapons systems allowed it to inflict a crushing defeat upon Armenia, which lost gigantic amount of weaponry and military personnel during 44 days of intense fighting. Nevertheless, it is not exclusively the military power at its disposal that makes Azerbaijan the right candidate for being a GUAM champion country, but rather and mostly, its ability to diplomatically and economically bring about and accommodate its military victory with the geopolitical realities of the contemporary world. Indeed, Azerbaijan’s success of harnessing allies and not estranging those interested in power politics of the region played a crucial role in bringing about its military triumph. Thus, GUAM countries may learn significantly in terms of military-diplomacy nexus and can turn GUAM into a functionally competent organization under the Azerbaijani guidance.

Second topic that needs to be addressed is including broader issues to the GUAM agenda, such as involving GUAM countries in the reconstruction of liberated territories. The latter approach may help GUAM countries to see how post-conflict territorial rehabilitation takes place and give them first-hand opportunity to draw lessons for themselves. Considering that all four member states have long suffered from the same type of problem – territorial aggression – they may need to engage in a dialogue over finding ways of reconstruction once they have restored access over their internationally recognized territories.

Colossal projects implemented by Azerbaijan in liberated territories, such as rapid construction of Fuzuli airport, turning an ex-ghost town Aghdam into a modern industrial center, as wells as projects to restore roads and railway links among others, makes it an attractive champion that other GUAM countries may want to learn from.

Built in just over 10 months, fully-operational Fuzuli International Airport has proven that with adequate economic measures and political will, post-war reconstruction can happen in a record time. Fuzuli city, where the airport is located, was razed to the ground by Armenian Armed Forces during the First Karabakh War and were surrounded with minefields upon its liberation by Azerbaijani Armed Forces in October 2020 during the Second Karabakh War. Another example is massive infrastructure projects being realized in Aghdam, a ghost-town once called “Hiroshima of the Caucasus” with unprecedented scale of destruction and pillage. Moreover, railway and highway constructions are being carried out in order to rebuild and increase connectivity to the liberated territories and rejuvenate transport corridors across the broader region. Azerbaijan’s reconstruction projects are not limited to these. Beyond mentioned efforts, Azerbaijan’s ambitious plan of transforming liberated territories into economically viable region continue at a full pace.

Once again, other GUAM nations may grow their much-needed expertise thanks to Azerbaijani experience in this field. Perhaps, this may also motivate them to seek ways of solving territorial disputes through soft means such as promising similar development and rehabilitation initiatives along with other measures to the people living in their occupied areas.

To conclude, this article does not invoke other GUAM countries to emulate Azerbaijan’s practice of military solution to the so-called “frozen conflicts”, but rather suggests to take positive lessons from Azerbaijan’s post-conflict restoration and give the relevant credit that it needs for advancing GUAM’s interests and vision worldwide. Azerbaijan’s experience can be used by GUAM countries to create roadmaps for themselves in order to incorporate into future policies regarding their own territorial issues. Furthermore, with the cooperation of all member states, GUAM can advocate for resolution, post-conflict reconstruction and restoration in broader context and improve its standing as an organization with a unified voice. It can expand its focus from more than a sector-oriented organization to the one that embodies economic development and democracy – with its active engagement in Azerbaijan’s liberated territories and learning from its experience – as its name also depicts.

Guntaj Mirzayev
Guntaj Mirzayev
Guntaj Mirzayev is an independent analyst on international security issues. He received his masters degree in International Security Studies from Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna and University of Trento.