Vienna, August 12 – Georgian President Mihkiel Saakashvili said today that Georgia will “finally” leave the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a way of underscoring that “the USSR will never again return.” And he called on Ukraine and other countries which are now members to do the same.
Saakashvili’s statement came in an emotional address to his country’s parliament during which he also labeled Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia “occupation forces” (www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=728022). Given recent events, Saakashvili’s remarks come as no surprise, but they call attention to something Moscow has been reluctant to acknowledge.
Not only have Russian actions called into question Moscow’s insistence that it can be an honest broker in regional disputes and that it will operate within the principles of international law, but these actions have highlighted the new reality that many of the CIS countries are anything but enthusiastic about what Moscow has just done.
In a survey posted online yesterday, Fontanka.ru’s Mariya Tsygankova pointed out that the former Soviet republics have not supported Russian actions to the extent that Moscow had hoped. Belarus and Moldova “have not supported Russia openly despite expectations” in the Russian capital that they would do precisely that (www.fontanka.ru/2008/08/11/124/).
To no one’s surprise, the three Baltic countries which are in NATO and the EU but not the CIS took the lead in condemning Moscow’s actions, but Ukraine staked out a harder line than many had thought possible, Azerbaijan backed Georgia’s territorial integrity, while Armenia called for vigilance in case Baku should try to exploit the situation over Karabakh.
In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan called for consultations, while Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been silent, while Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev backed Moscow’s actions (www.politcom.ru/article.php?id=6671) but in words that suggested he was less than fully in accord with what Moscow has done than Moscow would like, according to Tsygankova.
In short, the media commentator points out, the post-Soviet states in general and the CIS members in particular are very much divided, a reality Moscow has no interest in calling attention to and one that Saakashvili’s statement today could have the effect of exacerbating at least in the short term.
The reaction of Belarus must have been especially offensive to Moscow. On the one hand, “official Minsk” in the words of Tsygankova indicated that it was most concerned about the fate of its own nationals in Georgia. And on the other, a foreign ministry spokesman called for “an immediate cease fire” and “the peaceful and civilized path” of negotiations.
Given these attitudes, it is possible that one or more of the other countries might follow Georgia out, although there is certain to be pressure from Moscow against any such step and there may be pressure from the United States as well, even against the decision that Saakashvili clearly indicates Tbilisi has already taken.
After all, Georgia did not want to join the CIS in 1991 and was more or less compelled to do so by the United States which believed that at a minimum that body could serve as a kind of divorce court or coordinating agency that would soften the landing of the Russian Federation and other countries after the break-up of the USSR.
But Moscow’s actions have emboldened some in the Russian capital to look at the CIS not as a means of coping with the end of empire but as an institution that can serve as the basis for the rise of a new USSR. Indeed, one article posted on a pro-communist website today made precisely that argument (forum.msk.ru/material/fpolitic/513099.html).
In it, economist Vladislav Fel’dblyum argues that the post-Soviet states cannot overcome their current problems economic or political without coming back together into a single entity, one that he suggests should bear the name “the Strategic Union of Sovereign Republics” – or USSR according to the acronym of the Russian term.
Such proposals – and it is unlikely that they enjoy the support of the top Russian leaders even though Vladimir Putin has described the end of the Soviet Union as “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century – may contribute to Russian overreaching, but they will add weight to Georgian arguments that leaving the CIS is now in the best interests of some of its current members.