Georgia Prepares CIS Exit

Tbilisi may have been here before, but this time officials say there is no going back on moves to leave ex-Soviet club.

Georgia Prepares CIS Exit

Tbilisi may have been here before, but this time officials say there is no going back on moves to leave ex-Soviet club.

Georgia’s parliament is busy discussing legal details of the country’s forthcoming withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS.

Georgia declared its intention to pull out of the group soon after the war last August with Russia over South Ossetia – angered by the organisation’s failure unambiguously to condemn the Russian assault.

“Currently, all agreements Georgia signed within the CIS framework are being inventoried,” Shota Malashkhia, chair of parliament’s commission for the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity, said.

“The work is being done by the foreign ministry. We will be concluding bilateral agreements on the one hand, and liquidating those we see as unnecessary on the other.”

President Mikheil Saakashvili signaled his intentions last August, at a rally outside the parliament building in Tbilisi.

He denounced the CIS peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia and declared both Abkhazia and South Ossetia occupied territories.

“We will bid our final farewell to the Soviet Union,” he said to raucous applause from thousands of people who had gathered to protest against Russia’s offensive. “The Soviet Union is not going to come back here any more.”

Georgia joined the CIS in 1994, being the last – and twelfth – country to do so.

The move, even then seen by many as controversial, prompted much criticism of the then president, Eduard Shevardnadze.

The former Soviet foreign minister was of the opinion that CIS membership would help Georgia restore control over its breakaway region of Abkhazia.

But 15 years on since Georgia joined up, the goal remains as distant a prospect as ever.

According to the CIS statute, the withdrawal procedure lasts for a year, which means Georgia will be out in five months, on August 18, 2009.

Some Georgian experts are doubtful, noting the economic benefits of CIS membership.

Among the most important they cite the visa-free regime that Georgia has enjoyed with all the other members of the CIS except for Russia - a visa regime has been place with the latter since 1999.

Another benefit is the preferential customs and duties regime Georgia has enjoyed in its trading with these countries, again save Russia, which imposed an economic blockade on Georgia in 2006.

This is important, because the bulk of Georgian exports go to the former Soviet republics.

However, in the Georgian foreign ministry, officials say Georgia will want to exercise its right, under the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, to retaining participation in some of the pacts it signed within the CIS framework, for which membership of the organisation is not compulsory.

These include a mutual legal assistance convention and an agreement on mutual recognition of property rights as well as free trade and visa-free regimes.

Deputy foreign minister Alexander Nalbandov told parliament’s foreign relations committee on March 13 that by August, the government “will have held negotiations with those states that Georgia wants to sign bilateral agreements with, as soon as it has pulled out of its [CIS] multilateral agreements”.

Georgia has threatened to withdraw from the CIS before – mainly when it fell out with Russia on this or that issue.

In 2006, the opposition Democratic Front demanded that the question of whether the country should leave the CIS be brought to a vote in parliament, but the authorities did not then permit this.

“The last argument in favour of Georgia keeping its CIS membership lost validity after the Georgian parliament declared the CIS peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia occupiers,” Malashkhia said.

Zurab Khonelidze, Georgia’s envoy to the CIS, was recalled to Tbilisi even before the August 2008 crisis broke out.

But he believes the decision to withdraw from the CIS is rash and based on emotion rather than on sound consideration of what will benefit Georgia.

“Sooner or later the CIS will cease to exist but now, I think, it’s not yet time for Georgia to leave the commonwealth, through which it may exert influence on Russia,” he told IWPR.

“Georgia has had no other channel for communication with Russia since it broke off diplomatic relations.”

Now that the withdrawal procedure is well under way, he continued, stopping it would be “difficult, but not impossible”.

“My partners from different countries who work in key CIS structures say they are perplexed, failing to see what Georgia is striving to achieve by withdrawal,” he said.

“We assure ourselves that we are punishing Russia, but we are mistaken. As a CIS member, Georgia could do itself a lot of good. There are states in the commonwealth with problems similar to ours, and we could win their support so as not to have to deal one-on-one with Russia.”

Khonelidze believes if Georgia changes its mind and remains in the CIS, the other members, bar Russia, will all restate their support for Georgia’s territorial integrity. “Then it will be 11 states against one – Russia,” he said.

However, most Georgian experts and politicians do not subscribe to this view.

“Suppose Georgia does demand that CIS countries confirm their support for its territorial integrity,” political analyst Shalva Pichkhadze said. “What if some refuse?”

Nika Laliashvili, of the opposition Christian Democrats, also ruled out any possibility of reversing the withdrawal procedure.

“We have already voted for withdrawal,” he said. “The decision taken last August was unanimous, and no one is going to reconsider it.”

Mikheil Vignansky is correspondent of Vremya Novostei in Tbilisi. Tamar Kadagidze is a freelance journalist working in Tbilisi.
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