TBILISI: Georgia Leaving An Ailing CIS Organisation

By Richard Rousseau

Daily Georgian Times
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July 27 2009

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 favour of quitting this international
organisation 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 organisation. 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 recognise 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.

Richard Rousseau is Assistant Professor and Director of the Masters
Programme in International Relations ([email protected]) at the
Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics & Strategic Research