Georgia’s departure from the CIS – What happened?

 Georgians cheer while listening to President Mikhail Saakashvili’s announcement that Georgia is going to quit the CIS. Tbilisi, Georgia  (AFP Photo / Vladimir Valishvili)
The CIS Council of Ministers approved Georgia’s application to withdraw from the organisation today at its meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It was a rubberstamp action, since Georgia’s unwillingness and inability to function in the CIS was clear. Georgia’s

To understand the significance of this event, it is best to start with the CIS itself.

So what’s the CIS?

Leaders of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia 
            sign a communique announcing the creation  
            of the CIS. December 8, 1991  
            (AFP Photo / Novosti)
Leaders of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia sign a communique announcing the creation of the CIS. December 8, 1991 (AFP Photo / Novosti)

The Commonwealth of Independent States holds a key place in the modern history of the region. It was founded by the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine at a meeting in a nature preserve in Belarus on December 8, 1991. Membership was made open to all of the Soviet republics and, in spite of the opposition of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, leaders of 11 republics met in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on December 21 to sign the CIS charter. That charter declared the member states sovereign and independent. Thus, the last death knell of the Soviet Union was sounded.

The overseas press often describes the CIS as “Russian dominated.” This is a statement of the obvious that partially obfuscates the true situation. After the breakup of the USSR into 15 sovereign states, Russia (the legal successor of the Soviet Union) remained the world’s largest country and a nuclear power. No one expected Tajikistan or Moldova to dominate the alliance of former Soviet republics and, while Russia may take steps to maintain its position, it dominates by default.

The early members of the CIS were Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Azerbaijan joined in September 1993 and Georgia joined in December 1993, after it emerged from civil war.

The CIS encourages economic relations among its members, eases border crossing, serves security roles (such as peacekeeping) and generally makes life easier at the international level. Effectively, the Soviet Union had been replaced by a looser confederation of practically the same members. The Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), which had received independence from the USSR in September 1991, declined to join the organization. Those countries had been part of the Soviet Union only since the Second World War, whereas the other republics had been in the Union for a generation previous to that, and have ties to each other and to Russia that date far back in their respective histories. In addition to having practical functions, the CIS is the “old gang,” together forever.

Life catches up to the old gang

It was never simple, of course. Founding member Ukraine did not ratify its CIS membership and so formally is not a member of the CIS even today. The Commonwealth competed as a body (the Unified Team) in the 1992 Olympics, but that unity was rapidly eroded.  Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan formed the Central Asian Commonwealth to look after their own economic interests in 1991.

It was the first of many international groups formed within the CIS or partially overlapping it. There is the Collective Security Organization, the Eurasian Economic Community and GUAM, to name only the most important. Each of them has its own membership and a discrete role in international political and economic affairs.

Domestic developments in member states have had an impact on the organisation as well. Georgia’s withdrawal is not the first tremor in its foundations. Reclusive Turkmenistan downgraded its membership to associate status in 2005. Most leaders of the member states have criticized the CIS or predicted its demise at one point or another.

Armenian soldier at his position at a frontline  
            with Azrbaijan troops, Nagorny Karabakh  
            (AFP Photo / Alexander Nemenov)
Armenian soldier at his position at a frontline with Azrbaijan troops, Nagorny Karabakh (AFP Photo / Alexander Nemenov)

Armenia and Azerbaijan have had icy relations for the entire history of the CIS due to their conflict over the Nagorny Karabakh area. New conflicts have arisen since the colour revolutions.

Nor is Russia’s purported dominance always obvious. The status of the Russian language and ethnic Russian people in the former Soviet republics has been a painful subject for Russia, and plainly will remain so for a long time. The CIS has formed a tacit position on the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well. Russia dissents from it.

Painless divorce

Someone wise said that the real end of World War Two was the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Extrapolating on that logic, it might be said that the comparatively bloodless disintegration of the USSR is also as yet incomplete. The CIS preserves many of the functions of the Soviet Union that people valued – ease of movement, availability of goods produced in distant areas, cooperation and unity. Those values have been under fire since the moment the CIS was created, but something still remains of them. The querulous, disjointed and sometimes simply doubtable existence of the CIS looks a lot like democracy and looks as though it may go on for a long time to come. Despite the foreseers of its doom, no one wants to get rid of it.

President Saakashvili (AFP Photo /  
            Vladimir Valishvili)
President Saakashvili (AFP Photo / Vladimir Valishvili)

Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS, which goes into effect, under CIS rules, only in August 2009, is an extreme move. Even the CIS members who are not sorry to see it go may regret that the event is occurring. But the event’s significance is largely symbolic. Georgian products have been unavailable in Russia since the beginning of 2006. (Borjomi water is but a salty memory…) Travel between Georgia and Russia has been difficult for many months as well. Meanwhile, the other CIS member states have their own independent relations with Georgia that may or may not be affected by Georgia’s decision. Georgia remains a member of GUAM and is an observing member of Organization of Central Asian Cooperation, the successor to the Central Asian Commonwealth. Georgia is free to leave the CIS. And it had to go. The CIS will continue unimpeded along its own historic path without it.

Derek Andersen, RT