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Meditations on leaving the CIS

By Messenger Staff
Thursday, August 20
On August 18, 2009 Georgia officially withdrew from the CIS. All the legal procedures it was obliged to follow according to the CIS charter have been concluded.

Georgia has always considered this organisation to be a Kremlin attempt to create a modernised version of the Soviet Empire. Joining it was understood as a way of establishing relations with Russia. Georgia officially applied to join the CIS only after separatist forces supported by Russia defeated Georgian armed formations in Abkhazia and more than 300,000 ethnic Georgian IDPs were forced out it in Autumn 1993. In fact everyone in Tbilisi saw the move as an attempt by President Shevardnadze to maintain his leadership. It was already clear that the conflict in Abkhazia was really a conflict between Russia and Georgia and Georgia had to sacrifice a certain degree of its sovereignty by joining this Russian-brokered organisation.

Georgia considered withdrawing from the organisation several times but Russia’s aggression last August created a final breach, as it was conducted against a fellow CIS member. This membership did not bring Georgia any real regulation of its relations with Russia or restore its territorial integrity: on the contrary, Moscow implemented a policy of crawling annexation by giving out Russian passports in the breakaway territories and establishing a visa regime for Georgian citizens wanting to enter Russia, the only one imposed on a CIS country. Later absolutely unjust economic sanctions were taken against Georgia, banning the import into Russia of Georgian wine, spirits and mineral water and other agricultural products. Georgia was the only CIS member ever to be treated in such a way by another member.

From time to time withdrawing from the CIS became a party political issue in Georgia, but under both Shevardnadze and Saakashvili Tbilisi did not do so. After the Rose Revolution the opposition became particularly active in demanding that Georgia leave. Saakashvili established a special commission to study what kind of problems Georgia would face if it left the CIS, but still said there was nothing wrong with staying in the organisation as Georgia could leave at any time it wanted to and considered appropriate.

The Georgian leadership would not have withdrawn from the CIS if it had not been for the Russian aggression last August. On August 12, while the war was going on, President Saakashvili loudly declared at a meeting in front of the Georgian Parliament that he had decided Georgia should withdraw from the CIS and asked Parliament to give legal form to this decision. It did so without being asked and on 18 August the CIS’s official organs received Georgia’s application to withdraw, a process which took exactly one year as this is what the CIS charter stipulates.

Some people spoke against Georgia’s hasty decision. Ex-President Shevardnadze commented that leaving the CIS was not necessary and the alliance could have been used positively to serve Georgia’s interests. However it is hard to imagine how Presidents Saakashvili and Medvedev could have met each other at any CIS summit, how they would each evaluate the Russian aggression and what the other CIS leaders would say about it. There was also an extravagant claim that Georgia should have used the terms of the CIS charter against Russia as it had violated basic principles of the organisation by attacking another member country. Georgia could have demanded Russia’s expulsion from the CIS, it was said, as if any of the post-Soviet states still struggling to emerge from Russia’s shadow would dare take such a step having seen what happened in Georgia.

Georgia’s last Ambassador to the CIS Zurab Khonelidze thinks that Georgia’s withdrawal from the organisation has freed Russia from many of its obligations, including that of respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity. It should be said however that Georgia’s membership of the organisation was neither a legal nor a moral obstacle for Russia when it chose to invade its neighbour. Furthermore the leaders of other CIS countries made no protest against Russia’s attack on Georgia, although it is also true that none of them has recognised the Russian-backed separatist entities on Georgian territory, despite being subject to very serious Russian pressure.

Most Georgian political analysts asserted that when around 1/5 of Georgian territory is occupied by Russia nothing can justify Georgia remaining a member of the CIS. Some politicians from the ruling party think that Georgia’s withdrawal is a big blow for the CIS, not Georgia. MP Giorgi Kandelaki has said that since Georgia announced it was leaving the organisation two summits have been held and almost half its members did not attend these, which is not a usual occurrence.

During the year Georgia has had to wait to finally leave the organisation Georgia has concluded several dozen bilateral agreements with CIS countries other than Russia which regulate different types of relations, such as free trade and visa regimes. Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with Russia as soon as it attacked and no restoration of these relations is envisaged until the Russian occupiers leave the country. As yet, we are unable to say if Georgia has actually lost anything by leaving the CIS, and how other members will react if they see this country getting along fine without it.