Georgia on Tuesday became the first country to withdraw from the CIS grouping of former Soviet republics in the latest and most blatant sign of rebellion against Moscow in its own backyard.
In the wake of its devastating five-day war with Russia last August, Georgia vowed to quit the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States formed with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Its departure underscores the drift from Moscow by former Soviet republics, where traditional allegiances to the old Soviet master are being challenged by the economic and political influence of the West.
“Russia has very few mates, and the mates it does have are becoming very fickle,” said James Nixey, research fellow at London-based Chatham House.
The CIS was designed to ease the trauma of separation and promote cooperation on issues such as trade, travel and security between the former republics.
With the exit of Georgia, the CIS now groups Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
Loyalties were already strained when Russia sent forces into Georgia to quash a Georgian assault on the breakaway South Ossetia region, the first time the Kremlin had deployed troops in anger beyond its borders since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Georgian parliament voted to quit two days after the war ended, starting a year-long process that ended on Tuesday.
The conflict shocked its fellow former Soviet republics, and the 12 months since have brought a series of bilateral spats signaling a clear shift in allegiances.
None of the former republics has followed Russia in recognizing Georgia’s rebel South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states despite intense pressure from Moscow.
There has also been movement toward the European Union.
Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus have joined Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the EU’s Eastern Partnership, designed to expand their political and economic ties with Europe.
“FINDING THEIR FEET”
On the military front, Uzbekistan and Belarus refused to join a Russian-proposed rapid reaction force. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Tajikistan signed a pact on it in June.
Kyrgyzstan this year shut down a U.S. base supplying forces in Afghanistan having secured pledges of $2 billion in aid and credit from Russia, only to reverse the decision in June.
There have also been tensions over energy.
Long Russia’s closest ally, Belarus has clashed with Moscow over gas prices, ownership of gas transport networks and dairy exports. Instead, President Alexander Lukashenko has sought — with success — to end the country’s ostracism from the West.
Turkmenistan has stepped up efforts to diversify gas supplies to China and Iran.
Russian relations with Ukraine in particular have hit new lows, notably over Kiev’s push to join NATO and a series of disputes over gas transit. In an open letter last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accused Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko of pursuing a deliberately anti-Russian course.
“What we are seeing now is a run from Moscow,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with Carnegie Moscow Center. “Russia’s allies are looking for alliances elsewhere to ease the heavy hand of Moscow,” he said.
“The CIS was an attempt to turn a divorce deal into a new marriage contract. It failed.”
Nixey said the trend was “inexorable.” “At the end of the day, these countries are immature independent states and they are finding their feet,” he said.
Georgia’s departure from the CIS will have little practical impact. Deputy Foreign Minister David Jalagania said it would remain party to 75 multilateral agreements formed under the CIS covering among other things visa-free travel and free trade.
Russian officials were unperturbed.
“Georgia entered the CIS as a Trojan horse, cooperating with (Ukrainian President Viktor) Yushchenko,” said Konstantin Zatulin, a member of the Russian Duma and director of the Institute of CIS Countries, quoted by Interfax news agency.
“Both countries prevented the CIS from developing effectively.”