Georgia Leaving an Ailing CIS Organization


Georgia 's formal withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) will take place on August 18. Soon after the end of hostilities between Georgia and Russia in August 2008, the Georgian Parliament voted almost unanimously in favor of quitting this international organization of which it has been a member since 1993.

During the last few years Georgia has signed several free trade arrangements with other CIS members and Marina Machavariani, head of the Georgian Economic Development Ministry's Department for Foreign Trade Policy, told Interfax news agency reporters on June 8 that Tbilisi hopes these would remain intact after August 18 as they are important for sustaining Georgia 's fragile economy. The Ministry of Economic development indeed gives assurance that there will be no significant damage in its relationship with CIS members once Georgia is out of it. International regulations allow mechanisms for the free movement of goods and services between Georgia and most CIS country members. According to information from the Foreign Trade Policy Department, eight CIS countries have already signed replacement bilateral free trade agreements with Georgia . In addition, the Georgian Government also has in its pocket free economic zone agreements with Azerbaijan and Ukraine , two GUAM ( Georgia , Ukraine , Azerbaijan , Moldova ) member states. Tbilisi downplays the consequences of withdrawing from the CIS by emphasizing that 65 percent of all Georgian exports go to GUAM members as a result of these free economic zones.

Georgia 's marginal trade dependency on CIS member economies is certainly one factor which will defray the prospect of significant damage being done to the Georgian business community as a result of CIS withdrawal. Another, more political factor, is the recent weakening of Moscow 's leadership of the organization. When Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took office in May 2008, he made it clear that one of his main priorities was to improve ties between the former Soviet republics that the Kremlin considers its “near abroad” and “sphere of influence.” However, recent developments indicate that Medvedev is encountering serious hindrances on the way to achieving this goal. The last informal CIS summit, which took place in Moscow on July 18, saw only five of the 10 heads of state invited by Medvedev attend, while the three previous informal CIS summits had been attended by all CIS leaders.

The leaders of the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively Sergei Baghapsh and Eduard Kokoity, made their presence at the summit very visible, at the insistence of the Russian Government, in the hope that it would legitimise their ‘statehood' and induce CIS leaders to recognize these breakaway Georgian territories as independent political entities. All CIS leaders have refused to do so, however, and Moscow seemed taken aback by this. This failed attempt to make its allies follow its lead underscores Russia 's limited leverage and the low level of solidarity within the Commonwealth.

Medvedev has also met with limited success in his efforts to transform the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) into a NATO-like collective defence and security alliance. Although he can get the backing of the most pro-Moscow CIS members - Armenia and the Central Asian “stans” with the exception of Turmenistan - Belarus 's Lukashenko and Uzbeksitan's Karimov have mounted strong opposition to the strengthening of the CSTO and to Moscow gaining the upper hand. Nevertheless, at the Moscow informal summit, many documents were signed by CIS leaders. One in particular is markedly important in that it enlarges the size of the renamed Collective Operational Reaction Force (CORF) and gives it more scope to military missions. From now on, the CORF is entitled to counter terrorists, drug trafficking and other cross-border criminal activities. Other missions could also “possibly” be added, such as offering its good services to facilitate the resolution of regional conflicts, which could be interpreted as a signal sent to Tbilisi. Other achievements of the summit are the CSTO members' call for more coordination in their policies on contemporary international issues and the CSTO Governments' support for Moscow's initiative for a new European security framework. But overall, despite a fair number of agreements, Russia has not yet been successful in converting the CORF into a genuinely and functionally-integrated force.

While the CIS has registered a ‘negative' success in preventing a total collapse of former ties, its positive achievements have been meagre, though nonetheless real. For example, a significant body of CIS law has been developed, establishing basic normative standards across the region. But in 1998, out of 887 documents officially agreed upon by all member states in the seven years of the CIS's existence up to that point, all Heads of States had signed only 130. No improvement has been seen since then.

The de facto competition of integration blocks and numerous political unions is a central aspect among ex-Communist states. This begs the question as to whether the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) will be able to survive this tendency after Georgia's withdrawal. Predictions are various and they range from moderate optimism to extreme pessimism. However, there are many indications that the CIS will continue to exist, even though blatant political disagreements are observable between country members on a daily basis. Political leaders of the region have certainly reached the conclusion that the dissolution of the CIS would occasion a host of obstructions in the resolution of political, social and economic issues and armed conflicts. Dozens of working agreements between member countries would, for all practical purposes, become ineffective. But reason seems to prevail. It is clear among CIS members that the former Soviet republics are still highly economically interdependent and that prosperity in the global economy is closely linked with free and open markets and continued regional integration. One should not be surprised then that Georgia is trying by all means to prolong the agreements reached while it was a CIS member.

One non-negligible positive aspect of the CIS lies in the very nature of its functioning. The CIS provides an appropriate forum where dialogues can take place among states' leaders. Indeed, where can the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia meet to discuss Nagorno Karabakh other than under the auspices of CIS summits? Moreover, post-Soviet structures dominated by the Russian Federation such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) are stable, and conditions are ripe for their expansion, despite the reluctance of many members described above. Established as a customs union by Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Tajikistan in 2005, the EEC recently saw another country acceding to it - Uzbekistan, which vowed to sign the 70-odd EEC agreements providing for free trade and visa free travel. Now, EEC members want to accede to the World Trade organization (WTO) together as a customs union. Russian's goal of setting up an OPEC-like gas cartel in Central Asia could be another tool at its disposal to keep alive the CIS.

In its assessment of this situation, the Georgian Government should take into account that the remaining members of the CIS are presented with stark choices: either keep relations unchanged with Georgia after it officially withdraws on August 18, and thereby risk Russia's displeasure and possible sanctions, or pay heed to Russia's new assertive policy within the former Soviet zone by ignoring Georgia's interests and concerns.