There are two main schools of thought as to why the CIS, which eventually came to include all the former Soviet republics bar the Baltic States, was set up in 1991. The more pro-Russian, pragmatic analysts see its creation as a means to cushion the shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union. With so much shared infrastructure and a network of interlinked economies – not to mention the threat of nuclear weapons being scattered all over Eastern European and Central Asian countries that had little idea of how to handle their new found sovereignty – the CIS was meant to provide a solid framework for dealing with a practical ‘divorce’. The organisation also offered support to those new republics, which had up until the fall of Communism, known nothing beyond dependence and centralisation.
However, those more critical of the inner workings of the Kremlin have always regarded the CIS as a means for Moscow to hold sway over the former Soviet sphere, denying the new republics their right to true independence. They see the bloc as a way for Russia to regain its old Empire and balance the power of the West, which in the 1990s was largely embodied in the form of an ever-encroaching NATO.
But whichever way you choose to view the CIS and its creation, it is worth thinking about the ramifications of the departure, considering that Georgia is the first country to make such a move.
What does this mean for Georgia?
The departure is likely to bolster the already Western-focused foreign policy, which some critics claim will damage ties with other CIS countries. However, the lack of reaction from these states indicates otherwise. It seems that there is a silent understanding of Georgia’s exit amongst the former Soviet states.
Even Russia’s reaction was surprisingly muted. Rather than condemning the actual move, the Kremlin simply mentioned that the withdrawal would have adverse impacts on Georgia’s citizens, as important economic links have been broken.
However, this ignores the fact that Georgia still remains part of a subunit of the CIS, known as GUAM, a supposedly anti-Russian group set up in 1997 comprising of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova (Uzbekistan was a fleeting member from 1999-2005, adding an extra ‘U’ to form GUUAM). Georgia still has the opportunity to pursue multi-lateral trade links within this organisation. Furthermore, there is nothing stopping the Georgian government from setting up bilateral agreements with CIS members.
Despite the loss of a member, the CIS is still looking robust, with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan still part of the club. However, if Georgia can walk away relatively unscathed, the question then arises: what purpose does the CIS serve?
Whichever side you took with regards to reasoning behind the organisation’s birth, both arguments look redundant now. On the one hand, the shock of the USSR’s collapse is no longer rippling through the region with force; although countries such as Belarus have failed to make the transition to liberal democracies, it has been two decades since the fall of communism and the former Soviet Union is making tentative steps towards integration with the rest of the world. On the other hand, if Russia is set on reasserting its power in the region, the flaky framework of the CIS bears absolutely no weight compared to the Kremlin’s use of ‘petro-politics’.
Does Georgia’s swift exit indicate the beginning of the end of the CIS? After announcing the withdrawal, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili stated that he was waving the final goodbye to the Soviet Union. He may not be right about many things, but Saakashvili seems to have hit the nail on the head. It is time to let go of Soviet-style relationships, which serve only to hinder these countries’ economic development and march towards democracy. This rusty framework needs to be forgotten, and if – as many will argue – some kind of multi-lateral agreement needs to remain, it should be one that is fresh and relevant to the twenty-first century.
It seems unlikely that any other members will follow suit in the immediate future, but the potential is there. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Russian-Belarusian partnership is looking decidedly rocky and the relationship between Russian and Ukraine is hardly a match made in heaven. The Central Asian states are also showing signs of rebellion against Russia; for example, Turkmenistan is considering diversifying its energy supplies. It would appear that the former Soviet republics, after almost two decades of taking a lead from Moscow, are really beginning to assert their independence. How much life is left in the Moscow-dominated CIS?