Vienna, August 17 – Tomorrow, one year after Tbilisi declared its intention to do so, Georgia will officially cease to be a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and thus, in the words of one Moscow paper, should now be considered part of Russia’s ‘far abroad,’ the term Moscow uses for countries beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union.
The meaning of this step may be both less and more than meets the eye. On the one hand, Georgia’s participation in the Russian-led group has been largely nominal for the last five years, and Tbilisi has indicated that it will continue to honor some 70 of the 113 agreements it signed as part of the CIS (svpressa.ru/world/article/12744/).
But on the other, Georgia’s action, precisely because it is unlikely to be accompanied by any cataclysmic consequences, may make it easier for some other former Soviet republics, Ukraine in particular, to take this step and thus bring to an end an organization that increasingly has resembled a club of presidents rather than an effective regional organization.
Georgia’s involvement with the CIS has been more troubled than that of any other member. Tbilisi was the last of the former Soviet republics to join, doing so in March 1994 only because then-President Eduard Shevardnadze insisted that membership would help Georgia maintain its territorial integrity (www.vremya.ru/2009/147/5/235265.html).
During Boris Yeltsin’s time in office as Russian president, Tbilisi regularly secured CIS declarations on behalf of Georgia’s territorial integrity. But under his successors, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the situation changed, culminating in Russia’s use of force against Georgia a year ago and its extension of diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
On August 12, 2008, near the end of “the five-day war,” Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared that his country would leave the CIS because that organization had done nothing to prevent Russian “aggression and occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nine days later, the Georgian foreign ministry informed the CIS of Tbilisi’s intention.
Now, after the conclusion of the one-year notice required for such a step, Georgia will not be formally a member of a grouping it has had little to do with in recent years. Like some Russian officials, a few Georgians think this is unfortunate. Among them is Shevardnadze who urged Georgia to join in the first place.
He told “Vremya novostei” that “the CIS as a rule always shared the position of Georgia on the separatists” and that in his view, “one should not take a decision about leaving so quickly. Undoubtedly,” he said, “we could still use the Commonwealth [of Independent States] in a positive way for Georgia.”
Zurab Khonelidze, Georgia’s last permanent representative to the CIS, agreed. “The departure of Georgia will only free Russia from many obligations, including recognition in the framework of this organization of the territorial integrity of Georgia. We could have still used [it] to achieve something useful for our country.”
But the die is now cast. A Georgian foreign ministry official observed that Putin’s visit to Abkhazia last week “removed all illusions” by showing that Moscow intends to use Abkhazia, which the CIS and the international community had recognized as an inalienable part of Georgia, for use as a military base.
And Mikhail Machavariani, the first deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament, added that in his view, “The CIS will soon cease to exist. Or Russia will remain its only member. Over the last year, Moscow has succeeded in worsening its ties with Belarus and Ukraine, and the Uzbeks too are dissatisfied with many aspects of [the CIS].”
According to “Vremya novostei,” Georgia’s new status as part of the “far abroad” was signaled already last Saturday when “the first group of American military instructors arrived in Georgia” in order to begin training Georgian “peacekeepers” for service in NATO-led operations in Afghanistan.