On the first day of the Beijing Olympics six years ago, war broke out between Georgia and Russia. The Sochi Winter games finds the neighbors on much friendlier terms.
Georgia’s government is seeking to use the $45 billion Winter Olympics to revive ties, with Premier Irakli Garibashvili saying four days after the Feb. 7 opening ceremony that he’s ready for a “direct dialogue” with his country’s northern neighbor. Sochi is just across the border from the breakaway regions that ignited the two countries’ five-day war in 2008.
“Sochi has become a perfect opportunity for the current government to prove that our intentions to improve and stabilize relations with Russia aren’t just empty words,” Paata Zakareishvili, Georgia’s minister for reconciliation and civic equality, said by phone. “Georgia is doing its share to make sure the Olympics will be peaceful and successful.”
With the threat of terror attacks by Muslim insurgents haunting the Olympics, the two nations are raising their alert levels and policing porous borders. After two wars that convulsed the region in the past two decades, Georgia and Russia have found something to rally around. Also opening up: air service and trade.
Nino Tsiklauri, a 21-year-old from Tbilisi, will compete tomorrow in Alpine skiing to become the first Georgian athlete to take part in the games, according to Georgia’s Olympic Committee.
The thaw began with an upset victory in 2012 parliamentary elections by Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose fortune the Bloomberg Billionaires Index puts at $5.6 billion. Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia, vowed to improve ties.
In 2013, Russia lifted a seven-year embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water, two of the country’s most popular exports. Road links were restored last August.
Days before the Olympic opening ceremony, Georgian Airlines made the first 450-kilometer (280-mile) flight between the capital, Tbilisi, and Sochi in more than 10 years. The route is being served by six charter flights during the games.
Russia and Georgia have also dropped objections to facing off in soccer, with the draw for the 2016 European Championship’s qualifying tournament set for Feb. 23, the final day of the Sochi Olympics.
Speaking at a meeting in Sochi on Feb. 10, President Vladimir Putin said Russia is counting on regular air service with Tbilisi, which will be among the “prerequisites for normalizing relations” with Georgia.
“I very much want the tragedies of previous years to recede into the past as soon as possible,” Putin said. “We understand that the process won’t be easy, but Russia’s leadership favors a positive development in ties with Georgia.”
At the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Putin, Russia’s prime minister at the time, informed then-President George W. Bush that “war has started.”
The Kremlin sent troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, saying it had to protect the Georgian separatist republics from government troops. By the time a truce was reached, Georgian forces had been expelled from both and Russian troops had briefly occupied the town of Gori and the port of Poti.
Russia gave the regions diplomatic recognition at the end of August 2008 and deployed soldiers to their borders.
Led by President Mikheil Saakashvili until last year, Georgia had threatened in 2010 to boycott Sochi if Russian troops didn’t leave the two separatist regions. While non-government organizations urged the authorities to pull teams from the games, four athletes will compete: three alpine skiers and a figure skater. No government delegation will attend.
Putin said last December that his “personal attitude toward Georgia’s current leadership has changed,” and Russia would consider restoring visa-free travel. Georgia broke diplomatic relations after the war.
“We see the signals being sent by Georgia’s new leadership,” Putin said.
Garibashvili, chosen for the premiership by Ivanishvili as his successor when he stepped down after a year in office, said Feb. 11 on Imedi TV that he’s “ready” for talks with Russian officials. Russian and Georgian diplomats will discuss a possible meeting between the two countries’ presidents at talks early next month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said in comments published on the ministry’s website Feb. 12.
The Georgian premier said last month his government is keeping sports separate from politics. He said he has no plans for notes of protest against Russian media and government portrayals of Abkhazia -- whose western border is about 10 kilometers from the Winter Olympics venue of Adler -- as an independent state.
Georgian police have reinforced the borders and monitor public places during the Olympics, said Interior Ministry spokeswoman Nino Giorgobiani.
Georgia complained that Russia “illegally” expanded its security area around Olympic sites, bringing it deep inside Abkhazia. Russia is among a handful of countries that recognize Abkhazia’s independence.
“We have done our best to normalize relations with Russia since we came to power,” Garibashvili said Jan. 23 in Davos, Switzerland. “Exports tripled after the market was opened. We welcome this, but honestly, we face a number of difficulties and provocations” along the border.
Russia maintains military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While South Ossetia isn’t recognized by the International Olympic Committee, its president was among more than 40 heads of state at the opening.
Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian premier’s special representative for relations with Russia, told reporters Feb. 3 that Georgia made a difficult choice to compete in Sochi, with the government aware of people’s misgivings.
The government has lost sight of national priorities, according to opposition leaders including Giga Bokeria, a former head of the security council.
“What we see is Georgia’s occupation issue isn’t on the agenda,” Bokeria said. “Russia’s policy is clearly seen in Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia and it’s unchanged: to restore and increase influence over those countries, weaken them and even destroy them as states.”
By participating in Sochi, Georgia is acknowledging Russia’s power and control of the situation, according to Alexander Rondeli, who heads the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.
“Russia wins 1-0 at this stage,” he said today by phone from Tbilisi. “If Georgia actually goes and meets the Russian leadership, Georgia once again plays Russia’s game.”
Whether or not the conciliatory moves will mark a turnaround in relations between the neighbors, it has the blessing of billionaire Ivanishvili, who favors European Union entry for his country.
“Nothing will prevent Georgia from its EU path but we must sort out our relations with our neighbors, including Russia, and the Olympics is the best way to do so,” Ivanishvili said Feb. 4. “Remember when during the Olympics wars stopped -- this is an opportunity to restore relations.”