Support for CIS Partnerships Strong -- Even in Georgia

by Steve Crabtree and Neli Esipova

Majorities in all but one CIS state favor formal political or economic affiliation

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On Aug. 12, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced his country's withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose affiliation of former Soviet republics, saying it had "totally failed as an international organization." However, recent Gallup Polls reveal widespread support for some type of formal relationship among almost all CIS populations, even Georgians.

The crisis in Georgia has raised questions about Russia's relationships with other CIS members because even some staunch Russian allies have remained largely ambivalent -- or at least silent -- about the conflict. On Aug. 13 Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev said CIS unity was threatened by the situation, and that the organization "has become weak and has no levers to intervene in such conflicts."

Such reactions have thrown into stark relief the fragility of the CIS and even called into question its value to member countries. Gallup surveys conducted over the past two years in all but one CIS country (Turkmenistan, an associate member) put that question to the people themselves -- that is, do they see an ongoing need for some form of unity among former Soviet republics?

In each country, respondents were asked to select the ideal relationship between CIS countries from the following options: 1) unite into one country; 2) create a confederative state where there is centralized authority on international and defense matters, while states retain power internally; 3) create an economic union, but not a political one; and 4) remain independent as it is now.

Majorities in 10 of 11 Countries Favor Formal CIS Partnerships

In each country except Azerbaijan, most residents favored some type of closer affiliation than what currently exists -- whether a united country, a federation, or an economic union. Even in Ukraine and Georgia, the percentage choosing one of these three options represents a majority (54% in each country). In Azerbaijan, just 28% do so -- likely reflecting a strong sense of economic independence bolstered by the country's burgeoning oil-driven economic growth.

Support for the complete unification of CIS states is strongest in three of the Central Asian countries -- Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- which remain poor and heavily dependent on Russia for economic security. In each of those countries, residents are far more likely to approve than disapprove of Russia's leadership.

However, even in Georgia, where just 18% of residents approve of Russia's leadership, there remains a widespread sentiment that partnerships among former Soviet republics are desirable from an economic standpoint.

Gia Maisashvili, a Georgian economist, was one of six officially recognized candidates to run against Saakashvili in the January 2008 presidential election. Following the Rose Revolution in 2003, he favored pulling out of the CIS as a way to redefine Georgia to the rest of the world. However, Maisashvili disagrees with the recent decision to leave the CIS during the heat of conflict with Russia. "To leave now makes no sense to me," he says. "I would have stayed in the CIS and tried to use that platform as an additional venue for negotiations. I would want to keep the dialogue going, rather than burning all bridges with Russia. To me that's a hotheaded decision."

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, in each of the countries studied. In Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine, interviews were conducted from March to June 2008. In all other countries, interviews were conducted in 2007, except Uzbekistan, where they were conducted in 2006. For results based on each total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
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