As athletes and pundits alike prepare for the big unknowns of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, much of the world’s focus will be on the all too real threat of North Caucasus terrorism, Russia’s retrograde anti-gay legislation, credible allegations of massive corruption, and the ghosts of Tsarist-era ethnic cleansing. Oh, and there will be some sporting events, too. But perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Sochi’s stone’s-throw proximity to a Russian-occupied Georgian territory is being regarded as barely newsworthy. There may even be a fair reason for that: Georgia and Russia, improbably enough, have spent the past year or so re-learning how to get along.
The restive Georgian territory of Abkhazia is barely a 30-minute drive from Sochi’s cafes and ice palaces. Don’t believe the Sochi propaganda about the pedigree of the Russian Black Sea resorts: The best-connected Soviet citizens took their holidays in Georgia when they could. And when they went to Georgia, many preferred Abkhazia, the “Soviet Riviera,” with its lush mountain landscape, sun-washed palms, and warm, distinctly pebbled beaches. “And the food!”—so the refrain usually goes.
Abkhazia today is a de facto protectorate of Russia, which “recognized” it along with landlocked South Ossetia after the 2008 invasion of Georgia. Thousands of Russian troops are based in Abkhazia, housed in newly built barracks that look anything but temporary. Russian tourists are starting to trickle back into Abkhazia, but the real economy hinges on the Russian military, which trains in its mountains, patrols the separatist region’s “borders,” and erects wire fencing along arbitrarily imposed boundaries in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—carving up villages and dividing neighbors.
Yet little more than five years since Russian forces routed Georgia’s smaller and ill-prepared army, Georgia-Russia relations look to be somewhat on the mend. This trend began after the former long-shot Georgian Dream (GD) coalition won a surprise victory in October 2012 over bombastic ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM). Abandoning the belligerent tone of their predecessors, GD pursued a program of cautious but genuine outreach towards Russia in an effort to reduce tensions and, if possible, expand trade and even smooth the path toward its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
So far, Georgian efforts have exceeded most expectations. Its famous wine and mineral waters, much beloved throughout the former Soviet Union, have returned to Russian shelves. So have Georgian mandarin oranges, grown along its balmy coastal Black Sea belt, as well as other agricultural products. It’s not just exports, either. Visa procedures for Georgian truck drivers moving between the two neighbors have been recently simplified, perhaps suggesting long-term trade ties are in the offing. Russian big boss Vladimir Putin also raised hopes when he expressed interest in dropping visa requirements for Georgian visitors (Georgia’s previous UNM government unilaterally removed its visa requirements for Russians in early 2012), citing deep “cultural and spiritual” relations between the Russian and Georgian people. But by far the most encouraging sign of improved relations is a less visible one: For the first time in years, few expect the resumption of hostilities between the two countries. This is the Caucasus, after all, so nothing should be written off, but there is finally a sense that peace—even a fraught one—is possible.
None of this is to say that Georgia-Russia relations are warm. Relations haven’t really “normalized,” as the process is often optimistically described, so much as they have been detoxified. The hostile rhetoric of the previous era has largely subsided and the two states are able to talk to one another, but this is a long way from friendship. Georgia and Russia have yet to restore diplomatic relations and remain fiercely at odds on a plethora of major issues. The two peoples may have legitimate, deep-seated feelings of mutual admiration, but that isn’t necessarily the same thing as trust. According to a recent poll, 71 percent of Georgians see Russia as a threat to their country. And in Russia, one poll showed that a large percentage of Russians see Georgians as hostile toward their country.
On the geopolitical level, the two states may be even further apart. Russian insistence on Abkhazian and South Ossetian “sovereignty” (we can call them “sovereign” in the same way we call Russia “democratic”) seems an unbridgeable gulf. And Georgia’s continued and invigorated Euro-Atlantic push has only provoked ire from Moscow, which continues to deny Georgia’s right to pursue an independent foreign policy. One need look no further than the Russian pressure that halted Armenia’s EU Association Agreement plans or the extended drama in Ukraine to know Moscow’s preferences on the matter. Georgia has received similar levels of opprobrium from Russia on the Association Agreement it initialed last November, but years of past hostility has left Moscow with few obvious levers with which to shift Georgian foreign policy. In all likelihood, Georgia will continue its Euro-Atlantic integration progress and sign an Association Agreement with the European Union later this year, though this certainly will not come to pass without Russia’s expressing its disapproval.
Georgia and Russia may have found ways to paper over their differences, but core foreign policy divergences will ensure that the ceiling of their relationship remains low. GD has taken major strides since it came to power in October 2012, but the intervening months have also been a period of reassessment by the Russian leadership, which appeared to be just as caught off-guard by the change in power as the former Georgian regime’s allies in Western capitals. Since then, Russia has seemingly alternated between friendly and unfriendly moves—opening its markets, yet building wire fencing along the separatist boundaries—as a means of gauging the new Georgian government’s plans and intentions. But by now, the signs should be relatively clear: Georgia has strongly and rather unequivocally backed Euro-Atlantic integration as a core foreign policy goal. Nor will Georgia waver on the issue of its territorial integrity. Essentially, Georgia is naturally interested in rebuilding relations with Russia—just not at the expense of its principles.
For the time being, Moscow will be preoccupied with the Sochi Olympics and whatever fallout or afterglow may or may not come of it. But once the last Olympic delegation has departed Russian soil and the eyes of the world have moved elsewhere, many expect Russian pressure on Georgia to ramp up. With Georgian plans to sign its Association Agreement with the EU by August, and hopeful signals from Tbilisi that the 2014 NATO summit just might bring about a long-awaited Membership Action Plan, an unhappy Russian response is almost assured.
Of potentially greater concern to Georgia watchers is the remote but still plausible chance of Georgian spillover in the event of a terrorist attack in Sochi. Though understandably riled by Russia’s treatment of Abkhazia as just another internal, subservient republic, the new government in Tbilisi has largely reversed the previous regime’s staunch anti-Sochi position. Instead, it has opted to send athletes to participate (but no government delegation), and even offered its assistance in providing security. But should terrorism strike Sochi, as many think is inevitable, there is reason to believe that Russia could somehow implicate Georgia as a means of externalizing the issue. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Moscow regularly blamed Georgia for such plots.
Still, while Georgia-Russia relations may be about to plateau (or even regress), the odds seem to be against the kind of collapse that characterized ties under the UNM. Critically, the tone coming out of both Tbilisi and Moscow at this point privileges pragmatism over antipathy; neither side seems to be terribly interested in using the other as a foil for domestic political purposes. But the two neighbors are nonetheless at odds on some very major, even existential, issues.
Georgia wants its territories back, and it wants to manage its domestic and foreign policy without Russian “guidance.” Russia, meanwhile, wants the final say over developments in its so-called “near abroad,” which includes Georgia. These goals are fundamentally incompatible. Georgia-Russia relations may be at high tide as the Sochi games get underway, but it’s fair to assume that stormy days are ahead.