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CIS struggles for cohesion

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Molly Corso
Publication Date 6 June 2005
Cite as EurasiaNet, CIS struggles for cohesion, 6 June 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46c58f152d.html [accessed 8 December 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Molly Corso 6/06/05

A EurasiaNet Partner Post from PINR

At one point, political observers feared that the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) was Moscow's way of preserving the Soviet Union. However, growing tensions within the alliance over the past two years prove Russia's leverage over the former Soviet republics is fragile at best. Perhaps the clearest example of Moscow's waning influence is the tangible rift between C.I.S. leaders after the tide of revolutions sweep through member states. Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova are seeing fewer benefits from the alliance and are finding prospects outside of Moscow's sphere of influence more attractive.

On June 3, the leaders of the C.I.S. countries met in Tbilisi for the latest summit meeting. Although the Georgian government hosted the event, there is little doubt that the country's role in the alliance is now all but symbolic.

A Turbulent History

It took a civil war and the Abkhaz conflict to convince Georgia to join the C.I.S. in 1993. The alliance itself was created in 1991 by Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Originally, the stated purpose of the C.I.S. was to help the former Soviet republics cope with the break up of the Soviet Empire. While Georgia flatly refused to sign up at its creation, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze finally agreed to join nearly two years later in a bid to save the country from civil war and guarantee Russia's help in resolving the crisis in Abkhazia.

The confederation was intended to ease the transition for former Soviet republics, or to create something akin to the European Union with one currency and free trade, as well as military support. However, Georgia's guiding motivation to join the alliance was centered on its conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, not an ideological common language with Moscow.

The basis for Georgia's role in the C.I.S. was the guarantee that Russia would help mediate the unsettled conflicts. Its involvement in the organization led to the current C.I.S. peacekeeping troops, all Russian, stationed 12 kilometers on either side of the disputed borders. But after over ten years of negligible progress with either conflicts, Georgian politicians and opposition alike are forecasting the end of the alliance.

Georgia's role in the C.I.S. since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power has been characterized more by a series of scandals than by any level of cooperation. Relations were at an all time low during the meeting in August 2004; a dispute concerning the Russian-Abkhazian railroad project led presidents Saakashvili and Putin to spend the meeting arguing about Russia's interests in the disputed republic rather than discussing the C.I.S.' role in mediating the conflict. With Georgian-Russian relations strained over the Russian military base agreement in early May, it was no surprise that Saakashvili refused to even attend the informal C.I.S. summit in Moscow over the May 9 celebrations.

A Precarious Future

Despite the fact that the organization has stated new goals and conducted regional meetings, there is little to show for the time and energy put into the alliance. Originally branded a means for economic cooperation, C.I.S. countries have failed to even create the long anticipated free trade zone. By all reports, this zone was to begin in 2005. During the latest summit in Tbilisi, members of the organization could not even agree to a 2012 deadline. Even more telling is the fact that member states, on the whole, trade less with one another than they do with Western powers like Germany and the United States.

The ongoing conflicts within the former Soviet Union are another glaring example of the alliance's failures. In 1994, member states signed the "collective security treaty," which was designed as a military alliance intended to guarantee the peaceful end of regional conflicts, as well as provide a united front against the growing concern of Western military involvement in the former Soviet Union. However, five years after its conception, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan refused to renew the treaty and left the military alliance, citing a complete lack of progress dealing with conflicts, as well as growing dissatisfaction with Moscow's policies.

Tensions were obvious at the Tbilisi meeting as well, where the priorities of member states were clearly at odds. Conflict resolution aside, Georgia has also not received any clear economic benefit from the C.I.S. Although Tbilisi removed visa restrictions for Russian nationals, there is still a strict Russian visa regime in place against Georgia. The summit meeting in Tbilisi on June 3 was promoted as a forum for economic development; however, the president of the Russian delegation, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, could not make any promises that the Russian visa requirements would be lifted. During a press conference, he merely mentioned that negotiations concerning the issue are "not easy."

While Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli expressed optimism that the alliance can still be viable, other Georgian politicians are questioning the future of the C.I.S. And there was little Georgian involvement in issues discussed at the summit; out of 34 treaties presented, the Georgian leadership signed nine. That degree of inactivity is in sharp contrast to the enthusiasm Georgia exhibits toward N.A.T.O. A Georgian delegation met with N.A.T.O. representatives in Brussels last month; while N.A.T.O. officials were more cautious, Irakli Okruashvili, the Georgian defense minister, was confident Georgia's rapidly paced military reforms would lead to N.A.T.O. membership in as little as three years.

Georgia is not the only C.I.S. member considering other, more Western-oriented alliances. After two years of velvet revolutions throughout the former Soviet space, the C.I.S. is now struggling to bring together radically different governments. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to downplay the importance of the organization in March, saying it had been merely a means of ensuring a "civilized divorce" for the former Soviet republics. However, after over a decade of summit meetings and unimplemented treaties, members are increasingly looking toward N.A.T.O. and the E.U. as a means to achieve their goal of integration with a post communist world.

There is also a growing ideology gap between the governments of the member states. With the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, "the last dictator in Europe," at one end and pro-Western presidents like Saakashvili on the other, the alliance is stretched to the breaking point.

Conclusion

While the C.I.S. purportedly represents 12 of the 15 former republics, Russia has always been the deciding force behind the organization; during its nearly 14 years of existence, the president of the C.I.S. has always been either from Russia or Belarus. The relationship between Georgia and the C.I.S. has always been a reflection of the larger Russian-Georgian relationship. Now, since the Russian military bases are beginning the withdrawal process, the Georgian leadership is noting the tension within the C.I.S. but has expressed some mild hope for its future. However, if relations with Russia sour further, the call for Georgia to leave the C.I.S. will be louder and will carry more political weight.

Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Tbilisi.

Posted June 6, 2005 © Eurasianet

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