The issue of Georgia’s possible return to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and its participation in other post-Soviet space organizations became topical after the January 29 statement of the head of the CIS Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, Mikhail Yevdokimov, about “contacts” with Ivanishvili’s government about this matter (https://medianews.ge/en/russiasaysnegotiationsongeorgiareturntocisunderway/30160).
Yevdokimov did not mention the term “talks” or even “consultations.” By “contacts,” the Russian official may have meant that hints about Georgia’s reentry were dropped during recent meetings of the Russian and Georgian diplomats at different levels. Notably, the special representative of the Georgian prime minister for negotiations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, met with Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Grigory Karasin on December 14 in Switzerland (https://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25550).
Almost immediately after Yevdokimov’s statement was published, Abashidze repudiated the allegations, saying that his “contact” with Grigory Karasin did not entail any talks about Georgia’s membership in the CIS. “The Commonwealth of Independent States was not mentioned during our talks even once,” the prime minister’s envoy emphasized (The Messenger, January 31).
President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM), accused Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili of altering the foreign policy course of the country, causing it to fall into the “Russian influence zone.” “If the government is really discussing the issue of accession to the CIS, it is treason. If Yevdokimov had lied, why has the Georgian foreign ministry not sent a note of protest to Moscow?” one of the leaders of the UNM, Georgy Gabashvili remarked (https://www.kommersant.ru/pda/kommersant.html?id=2116522).
Georgia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Maia Panjikidze hastened to deny all allegations, saying that Ivanishvili’s government did not even consider the question of joining post-Soviet organizations. “If we become members of any international union, it will only be NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] or the EU [European Union],” the minister asserted (https://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25693). The chairman of the parliamentary committee for international affairs, Tedo Japaridze—who had just recently been nominated to the position of ambassador to the United Kingdom—called the statement by Mikhail Yevdokimov “absurd,” using rather non-diplomatic languare. Japardize said there were many “Yevdokimovs out there, and it was better not to pay any attention to them” (https://www.newsru.com/world/31jan2013/evdokimov.html).
It is not difficult to understand the motivation for such a swift and emotional backlash by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition against allegations about joining the CIS. The governing party members wanted to deny President Saakashvili and his allies the ability to accuse Prime Minister Ivanishvili of deviating from the course toward joining NATO and of “filling the Kremlin’s orders.” However, many Georgian politicians already suspect Ivanishvili of pursuing a behind-the-scenes agreement with the Kremlin.
“Georgian Dream is a Russian landing party in our country,” the leader of the People’s Front, Nodar Natadze, told Jamestown. Meanwhile, not trusting Ivanishvili’s government, one of the closest associates of President Saakashvili, Georgy Baramidze, demanded the adoption of a special law that would codify Georgia’s pro-Western foreign policy orientation (https://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25695). “The law will prevent any authorities in power from joining the CIS, Eurasian Union or the [Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan] Customs Union, as well as other organizations that were created under the auspices of the occupier country [Russia],” Baramidze said. President Saakashvili advanced even further, proposing changes to the constitution. “In the primary law it should be written that Georgia will not reject the course for Euro-Atlantic integration,” the head of state declared (https://news.am/rus/news/138322.html). Yet, the leader of the parliamentary majority, David Saganelidze, rejected these proposals. “We are not in a position to burn all bridges,” he pointedly stated, confirming suspicions that despite all denials, the issue about Georgia’s participation in post-Soviet integrationist projects has not been entirely removed from the political agenda.
Georgian authorities are particularly reluctant to make any decisive statements about Russia at this point in time. Ivanishvili’s government is starting difficult talks with Gennady Onishchenko, the head of the Russian government agency for consumer products oversight, about the return of Georgian exports, such as wines, mineral water and agricultural goods, to the Russian market. Moscow had unofficially embargoed all Georgian produce since 2006, following the rise of tensions between Russia and Georgia over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (https://en.rian.ru/world/20120403/172590686.html).
Experts do not exclude that the statements by the CIS department of the Russian foreign affairs ministry was a diplomatic hint at the conditions under which Moscow will allow Georgian exports. “Maybe there have been no contacts yet, but Russia apparently proposes a barter exchange—Georgia’s return to the CIS in return for a resumption of imports [from Georgia],” independent expert David Avalishvili told Jamestown.
Experts and politicians have few doubts that if Georgia rejoins the CIS, which the country left immediately after the August 2008 war over South Ossetia, it will be only the first step toward membership in the Customs Union and then in the Eurasian Union championed by President Vladimir Putin.
Georgian society equates the CIS with several dramatic developments for Georgia in its recent past. President Eduard Shevardnadze led Georgia to become a member of this organization at the beginning of October 1993 (Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia 2004, Taylor & Francis Group, 2003) after a heavy defeat in the war with Abkhazia and losses in the civil war with “zviadists,” followers of the first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who declared independence of the country from the Soviet Union. All these past years, up to the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, Georgian elites had hoped to reclaim Abkhazia and South Ossetia through their loyalty to Moscow and participation in integrationist projects. However, geopolitical realities quickly shifted after the end of Boris Yeltsin’s era in Russia, its victory over Chechen separatism and the gradual increase of Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus. As such, an overt return to the CIS will likely prove politically unpalatable for many in Georgia.