One consideration that may influence Georgia’s planned departure from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is whether Tbilisi will find itself alone and vulnerable to retaliation by an angry Russia. So far, the Georgian government seems confident of its future prospects.
Following the recent Russian embargo on Georgian agricultural products (see EDM, April 20), President Mikheil Saakashvili created a governmental commission to explore the possible consequences of Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS. This commission convened for its first meeting on May 13 and is expected to submit its final report in two months. This schedule coincides with the Georgian parliament’s plans to discuss the continued deployment of Russian peacekeeping troops operating under CIS mandate in the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
However, after the commission’s first session, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili stated that, although the political decision about Georgia’s departure from the CIS is “clear,” discussions are underway “about when and how to do this” (Civil Georgia, TV Rustavi-2, May 13). This tactful statement suggests that Tbilisi may use its declared intention to leave the CIS as a tool to bargain with Russia. In any case, Georgia’s official exit from the CIS evidently will not take place overnight; most estimates predict it will take closer to one year to be completed.
But so far, the Georgian government has left little room for doubt. On January 25, Georgia quit the CIS Council of Defense Ministers, saying it was a natural development considering the new political leadership’s stance in favor of integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. The decision to leave the Russia-dominated CIS is largely perceived to be a component of this policy, although Saakashvili regularly reiterates that Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO and to maintain friendly relations with Russia do not and must not contradict each other. These days Saakashvili has attempted to smooth Moscow’s irritation with conciliatory statements such as, “We want to be part of NATO. But still the closest friend we have is Russia, for many natural reasons” (Financial Times, May 15; TV-Imedi, May 9; Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 10). But it seems that Moscow no longer takes seriously such statements when they are not accompanied by proof and when they conflict with other statements by Saakashvili and his associates. The attempt to mobilize the Western community to counteract Russia’s resurrected expansionism in the post-Soviet space was easily seen in Saakashvili’s address to the “Common Vision for a Common Neighborhood” conference in Vilnius on May 3-4.
The Russian government has already warned Georgia that it will be deprived of preferences within the CIS if it leaves. Other punitive measures, including the deportation of Georgian illegal labor migrants likely, are not far off. Citing Komsomolskaya pravda, Kavkaz Press reports that Russian authorities might refuse to recognize diplomas from Georgia universities if Georgia quits CIS. The move, if actually taken, would automatically deprive many Georgians of the opportunity to work in Russia (Kavkaz Press, May 17).
The harshest of the potential punitive measures would be the abolition of multilateral free-trade agreements. Such agreements allow member states to avoid double taxation and facilitate the free movement of goods within the CIS without any customs duties. Pundits, however, say that Georgia could compensate for these economic losses by concluding bilateral agreements among individual CIS members. Similar agreements already exist with Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.
Some Georgian politicians and pundits criticize the government for challenging Russia and argue that the costs of leaving the CIS are not the “price of freedom,” as Saakashvili’s government argues. They say that Georgia’s impulsive departure from the CIS without a blessing from the West or Russia would achieve only a symbolic victory, and Saakashvili’s government might incur numerous problems, including public disorder. The significant increase in consumer tariffs on electricity and natural gas in May and last winter’s price hike on imported Russian natural gas have already triggered sharp discontent among socially vulnerable groups. “I doubt that the Georgians can rub through for a long time,” said analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze. The opposition sees the hand of Russia-leaning interest groups in this move (Akhali Taoba, May 6, 13; TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, May 11-12).
Meanwhile, as anti-Russian and anti-CIS rhetoric increases, several strategic Georgian economic entities, including energy units, are smoothly transferring to control of CIS-based companies reportedly backed by Russia. On May 12, the Kazakh bank TuranAlem won the tender for Georgia’s largest telephone operator — United Telecommunication Company of Georgia (UTCG) — beating the U.S. Metromedia International Group, which already possesses 30% of UTCG’s shares. The Kazakh state-run company KazTransGaz won a tender on the Tbilisi-based gas distribution company Tbilgazi, and Greenoak Group — reportedly tied to Russian political and business groups — won a tender to privatize the Batumi seaport in Ajaria (Civil Georgia, May 12; Resonansi, May 13, 15).
Whether the expected Russian pressure on Georgia brings results desirable for Moscow will depend on the adequacy of Tbilisi’s countermeasures and the degree of support Georgia receives from its traditional allies in the CIS and the West. It will also depend on the political and civic awareness of the Georgian establishment and domestic economic performance. The already tense relations between Saakashvili’s government and local businesses, the continued stagnation of the Georgian economy, the falling support for the ruling National Movement party, and the growing internal opposition to Saakashvili’s policies all weaken Tbilisi’s stance against Moscow.
During a meeting with Croatian President Stjepan Mesic on May 7-8, Saakashvili confidently noted that Georgia would not be left face-to-face with Russia again (TV Imedi, May 8). Growing tension between the United States and Russia and repeated statements by high-ranking U.S. officials about Washington’s “legitimate interests and relationships” with former Soviet republics will encourage the pro-Western line of Saakashvili’s team, which naturally must rule out strengthening the highly politicized Russian economic foothold in Georgia.
Therefore, Tbilisi must pursue careful policies with all stakeholders in order to emerge from the current confrontation with Russia with minimal losses.