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Analysis: Georgia To Assess Repercussions Of Quitting CIS

CIS leaders at a summit in Kazan, August, 2005 (AFP) For years, Georgian legislators and oppositionists alike have suggested periodically -- generally when relations with Russia take a downturn -- that Georgia might quit the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). But President Mikheil Saakashvili has consistently rejected that option -- until May 2, when he announced that he has asked the cabinet to produce within two months an assessment of the benefits Georgia can expect from remaining a CIS member, compared with the anticipated repercussions if it does indeed quit that alignment.

Georgian politicians' arguments in favor of leaving the CIS range from the general to the specific. Some point out, as have politicians from other CIS member states, that the CIS is virtually moribund as a political organization and that only a tiny percentage of the agreements its members have signed since its inception in late 1991 have been implemented. By contrast, subsidiary organizations such as the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, which numbers only six members (Georgia declined in 1999 to renew its membership), and the Single Economic Space have proven more effective in promoting or defending specific interests.

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, for example, commented to Ekho Moskvy in November, 2005, that the CIS does not draw fully on its potential. But both Noghaideli and Saakashvili still ruled out leaving the CIS. Speaking at the CIS summit in Kazan in late August 2005, Saakashvili said Georgia will not quit the CIS, which "can still be revived," reported on August 27. And three months later, on December 1, Saakashvili similarly said that he personally is against Georgia leaving the CIS. But on that occasion too, he added that the CIS needs to be reformed, its declarations should be acted on, and its members should have greater freedom to act independently, Caucasus Press reported.

Parliament's Stance

The Georgian parliament, on the other hand, has consistently taken a more aggressive stance with regard to the CIS, calling on the country's leaders on several occasions to withdraw from it. Such calls were, however, clearly intended less as a vote of no-confidence in the CIS per se than as a slap in the face to Russia, perceived as the "glue" that binds 11 other former Soviet republics to it within the commonwealth. And Saakashvili made clear on May 2 that the catalyst for the current assessment of the benefits of CIS membership was not the actions of CIS member states as a whole, but the ban Russia imposed in March on imports of Georgian wine and other agricultural produce. Russia has already responded to his implicit threat by imposing another ban, this one on imports of Georgian mineral water.

Georgia has already secured an agreement on the closure of Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia, and hopes to secure the replacement of the Russian peacekeepers deployed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by international contingents. Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Valeri Chechelashvili told Caucasus Press last December that Georgia's secession from the CIS was directly contingent on securing the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers.

Having thus set about minimizing the military-political leverage available to Russia to pressure Georgia (the two military bases and the peacekeeping forces), Saakashvili apparently feels that Georgia is now in a strong enough position to defy Russia by threatening to quit the CIS. It should be noted that there is a precedent for doing so: Azerbaijan withdrew from the CIS in 1992 following the election of Abulfaz Elcibey as president, but rejoined the following year after Heydar Aliyev returned to the helm in the wake of a coup that toppled Elcibey.

In 1992, Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elcibey briefly pulled his country out of the CIS (AFP)

Speaking on May 4 in Vilnius, Saakashvili adduced the experience of Lithuania, which with Estonia and Latvia declined to join the CIS when the USSR collapsed in December 1991, as proof that Georgia could survive outside the CIS. But some Georgian experts believe otherwise. Parliament majority leader Maya Nadiradze argued in November 2005 -- even before Russia doubled the price of gas it supplies to Georgia from $55 to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters -- that "withdrawal from the CIS would have a negative effect on Georgia's economy," according to Caucasus Press on November 22. Given that Moscow would almost certainly choose to construe Georgia's withdrawal from the CIS as a deliberate affront delivered at the behest of the United States with the aim of undercutting even further Russia's rapidly dwindling influence in the South Caucasus, Moscow could well retaliate by cutting completely supplies to Georgia of oil and gas; it is currently the primary supplier of both commodities. True, as of 2007, Georgia will be able to draw on gas supplies from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz field, but the total volume it will receive in transit payments (200 million cubic meters in 2007 rising to 850 million cubic meters in 2010), augmented by the additional 500 million cubic meters that Georgia is entitled to purchase at the discount price of $55 per 1,000 cubic meters, will still initially fall short of the total 1.2 billion cubic meters Georgia consumes annually, Energy Minister Nika Gilauri told ministers on April 26, Caucasus Press reported.

Russia And Trade

Moreover, in 2005 Russia was Georgia's single largest trade partner, accounting for 14.5 percent of bilateral trade (closely followed by Turkey with 12.9 percent). In 2005, bilateral trade with Russia stood at $105.9 million, compared with $122.9 million with all other CIS states. Georgia may seek to compensate for the loss of the Russian market by increasing its exports to other CIS states, in the first instance Ukraine, which has similarly signaled that it might leave the CIS. Kazakhstan, for example, is considered a possible alternative market for Georgian wine. But Russia might seek to pressure fellow CIS members not to accommodate Georgia in this way, a possibility that Georgian Minister for Economic Reform Kakha Bendukidze may have had in mind when he argued that Georgia should conclude bilateral agreements with other CIS member states before it opts out of the CIS.