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Friday, 18 September 2009

So Long, Georgia

Last month on 18th August, Georgia finally withdrew from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an act of rebellion that was symbolised by the lowered Georgian flag at the CIS headquarters in Minsk, Belarus. The Georgian government first announced its decision to remove itself from the bloc following last year’s war with Russia, declaring that the status quo could not ensue while another CIS member refused to respect its territorial integrity and carried out ‘ethnic cleansing’ in its lands. As a matter of pride as well as principle, Georgia did not want to look like it could be bullied by the leader of the gang.

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.

And for the CIS?

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.

What Next?

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?


A.R.G said...

Helen, Ukraine is still part GUAM. Uzbekistan left this organisation 4 years ago.
The fact that you mixed up Ukraine and Uzbekistan only shows that your knowledge about Russian/CIS geo-politics is rather mechanical and limited.

Your 'analitical' statement about Russian-Belarusian partneship shows that you have NO idea that this 'rocky' partnership has been like this for 15 years, Constantly moving up and down.

Helen wrote;
"The Central Asian states are also showing signs of rebellion against Russia; for example, Turkmenistan is considering diversifying its energy supplies."

Turkmenistan has been 'considering' this for 10 years. (So I guess when you were in 8th grade, you didn't get memo?:)
But somehow you spinned this as a rebellion against Russia. Using your logic you could spin anything as "rebellion against Russia" in CIS.

Here is advice for you, if you want to be real Russian/CIS geo-politics expert. Go learn what was happening 5-15 years ago in Russia/CIS. If you want some help, I'm gladly will help you there just ask at -

Helen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen said...

A.R.G. - thank you for your comments.

I apologise for mixing up Uzbekistan and Ukraine - I wrote this post at 6 am GMT before I went to work. My mind is indeed mechanical and limited without coffee. I have now corrected the error.

I am perfectly aware that the Belarusian-Russian relationship has had its ups and downs for the past fifteen years. However, I am of the opinion that there have been more dramatic changes in the last couple of years - and even in recent months - than since the collapse of the USSR, that's all. We can discuss this further if you want.

With regards to Turkmenistan, no I did not get the memo in 8th grade. This is simply what I have heard and read in recent months. I do not think that the lack of time frame in my post detracts substantially from my argument. Or 'argument' as you may say. I believe that as the former Soviet republics have gradually been finding their feet (which has naturally been an ongoing process since the conception of the CIS), the relevance of the organisation has been falling away.

May I add that I NEVER pretend to be a 'Russian/CIS geo-politics expert'. I am simply someone who has an interest in the region and I wish to find out more. I feel that by blogging and listening to feedback, I can do this. Your comments have been helpful, if somewhat patronising.

Again, I apologise if you do not agree with my comments - and also sorry about the above deletion, my computer is misbehaving.

A.R.G said...

Don't apologise because we might disagree about something. I'm apologising to you for being too rough in my comments, because I was under impressesion that you are Russia/CIS expert. You are certainly put alot of thought into Russia/CIS geo-politics.

Belarusian-Russian relationship has been always complex and poorly understood by the West (gov. and media) So I'm not really suprised by your analitical conclusions. Lukashenko's regime is driven by its own survival. Until 2007 Belarus' socialistic economy was subsidized by Russian State. This Subsidy was worth 5 billion USD per year.
Since Russian subsidy is gone, Lukashenko needs to get lots of money somewhere else for his struggling country.
EU/USA sees this little desperation.., and they changing their own policy forward Belarus and offer Lukashenko some 'carrots' if Belarus is more 'open' to change and human rights, etc. Thats why you seeing Belarus is flirting with West.
Trust me, its just a political flirtation out of desperation and nothing else. Despite recent difficulties between Russia and Belarus, Lukashenko's hold on power is still very much depended on Russia. And Russia is Belarus' largest (by far) trade partner. Plus there is history, political, language links, etc.
There is no historical/political divide in Belarus that we see in today's Ukraine.

Helen wrote;
"With regards to Turkmenistan, no I did not get the memo in 8th grade."

It was a joke. Obviously nobody would send Turkmenistan's diversification plans to
lil British girl. Turkmenistan has been selling natural gas to Iran for many years now. And idea of selling natural gas to China was born 10 years ago. Turkmen-China natural gas pipeline is under construction now. But I don't see it as rebellion against Russia. Because Russia is not being replaced. Recently Russia and Turkmenistan signed new natural gas contract for next 30 years. So much for rebellion.
Nobody knows how much Turkmenistan has of natural gas.

that is it for now, if you see some silly mistakes, that because of heavy use of some of mine mechanical 'part' :)