WASHINGTON, June 9 (UPI) -- Georgia hopes to continue its free-trade arrangements with members of the Commonwealth of Independent States after its withdrawal from the organization takes place on Aug. 18. Given the aftereffects of its ill-advised five-day military clash with Russia last August, that may prove to be a forlorn hope, as the confrontation reminded the other Caucasian former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia that Moscow is determined to protect what Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has labeled its "privileged interests" in the former Soviet space.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's determined attempts to bring his country into NATO have increasingly soured relations between Washington, Brussels and Moscow for the last several years, as the Kremlin has repeatedly stated that neither Georgia nor Ukraine should be admitted to the alliance. Heightening Moscow's fears of being outflanked in the Caucasus, from May 21 to June 1 NATO staged its Cooperative Lancer 2009 exercise at Georgia's Vaziani military base, with about 700 soldiers from 13 NATO member nations participating alongside Georgian troops.
The West can hardly feign disinterest, as the crown jewel of Western efforts to bring Caspian oil westwards for export, the $3.6 billion, 1,092-mile, 1 million-barrel-per-day Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, opened in May 2006, carries Azeri crude from Azerbaijan's Caspian offshore Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli fields to Turkey's deepwater Mediterranean terminus at Ceyhan, crosses 155 miles of Georgian territory and contains two of the line's eight pumping stations.
On June 8 Interfax news agency reported that Georgia's Economic Development Ministry's Department for Foreign Trade Policy head Marina Machavariani told reporters that Georgia hoped that its current free-trade arrangements with C.I.S. member states would remain intact following Georgia's withdrawal from commonwealth. Attempting to soften the prospect of significant damage in its relationships with the C.I.S. after that date, Machavariani observed that there are international regulations allowing use of mechanisms of free movement of goods between Georgia and certain countries, commenting, "To date, Georgia has already signed bilateral free trade agreements with eight C.I.S. countries. With Azerbaijan and Ukraine, which are GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) member states, Georgia also has free economic zone agreements." Machavariani concluded by noting that the GUAM nations account for up to 65 percent of all Georgian exports.
What Machavariani's optimism glosses over is that Ukraine has significant issues with Russia that dwarf its commitments to Georgia. Kiev suffered a brief "gas pipeline" war with Moscow in early January, which forced Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's government into a humiliating climb-down on pricing.
Another prickly issue irritating Russian-Ukrainian relations is the status of Sevastopol, the finest natural harbor on the northern shore of the Black Sea and currently jointly shared by both the Ukrainian navy and Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Last but not least, Yushchenko's government is embroiled in a bitter fight for political survival, with some recent political polls giving Yushchenko a dismal 5 percent approval rating. In sum, the above issues hardly incline Ukraine further to antagonize Russia by broadening its contacts with Georgia following its withdrawal from the C.I.S., an organization in which Ukraine remains a member.
Azerbaijan also has less than perfect relations with Tbilisi, despite being conjoined by the BTC oil umbilical cord. The Russian-Georgian military confrontation inflicted significant fiscal "collateral damage" on Azeri oil exports, as all its westward export routes were closed.
On Aug. 5, 2008, two days before the outbreak of hostilities between Georgia and Russia, there was an as yet unexplained explosion on the BTC segment at Yurtbasi village in eastern Turkey. The cause of the explosion remains unclear, although Ankara initially suspected that it might have been a terrorist attack by the Kurdish separatist Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, or Kurdistan Workers' Party. BTC operator BP declared force majeure, and the pipeline only resumed operations on Aug. 25.
Seeking an alternative route, BP switched to the recently reopened 550-mile, 140,000-bpd Western Route Export Pipeline, better known as the Baku-Supsa line, which opened in 1999 and was running at about 90,000 bpd. Because of the worsening military conflict, on Aug. 12 BP announced that it was suspending shipments through Baku-Supsa, as well as the South Caucasus Pipeline, which transports natural gas from Baku to Turkey via Tbilisi. Completing the lock-in of Azeri oil exports, the fighting caused authorities to suspend seaborne shipments from Georgia's Black Sea ports of Batumi (200,000 bpd) and Poti (100,000 bpd), both supplied by rail. Poti was closed Aug. 8 following reported Russian airstrikes. Adding to the grim picture, authorities also ceased exports from Kulevi, Georgia's third Black Sea oil terminus, which opened in 2007 and is capable of shipping 200,000 bpd.
For Azerbaijan the conflict was an unmitigated financial disaster, as the country's oil sector receipts account for almost half of all government revenues, with oil exports generating around 90 percent of total export revenues. Between the BTC explosion and the military clash, Azerbaijan had been blocked from shipping approximately 17 million barrels of crude, while the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that Azerbaijan's final cost for the lost shipments surpassed $1 billion.
Georgia suffered lost revenue from the confrontation as well: In 2007 BTC fees generated $25.4 million in transit revenues, and before hostilities erupted Saakashvili's government had estimated BTC transit payments for 2008 at about $45 million.
For the remaining members of the C.I.S. then, the choices are stark -- continue relations with Georgia after Aug. 18 as before, thereby tacitly approving Tbilisi's confrontational posture vis-a-vis Moscow and risking Russia's wrath, or pay heed to Medvedev's "privileged interests" in the Caucasus. While little is clear in that part of the world, last year's military clash has given former Soviet states significant food for thought about what happens to former Soviet republics that ignore Moscow's concerns and stray too far westwards. Accordingly, it would seem unlikely that C.I.S. nations are likely to follow Saakashvili's lead or conduct "business as usual," unless Tbilisi somehow repairs its unraveled relationship with the Kremlin first.