Olympian Angst

Games around Sochi Games

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision to hold the February 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi[1] was met with an ambiguous reaction in Georgia. Despite the fact that relations between Russia and Georgia at the time were already quite tense, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili stated his full-hearted support for Russian Olympic bid, expressing hope that Sochi Games might enhance stability, peace and mutual understanding among the nations of the Caucasus[2]. On the other hand, then-pundit Paata Zakareishvili (now Georgia's state minister for reconciliation and civic equality) said that holding the Olympics in Sochi, immediately next to Abkhazia, would further tighten Russia's grip on Abkhazia and vanquish any hope for progress towards the resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict for at least seven more years[3]. The Abkhaz de facto authorities in Sukhumi were optimistic about the IOC's decision and hoped that the preparations for the Olympic Games would yield economic and political benefits.

The August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia lead to the expulsion of the Georgian population from the (entirely Georgian-populated) Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, the recognition of Abkhaz (and South Ossetian) independence by the Russian Federation, Moscow's growing domination over these regions and the formal establishment of Russian military bases there (7th and 4th, respectively). Since the latter was an open violation of the Point 5 of the Plan for Regulation of Military Conflict in Georgia (also known as Sarkozy-Medvedev Agreement), Georgia accused the Russian Federation of occupying its lands, severed diplomatic ties with it, quit the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and began pursuing a more active policy of engagement with the peoples of the North Caucasus that culminated in the Georgian parliament's recognition of the massacres and mass deportations by the Russian Empire of Circiassians in the 19th century as genocide.[4] Russia took Georgia's action as an attempt to play the Circassian card to undermine the Olympic Games[5]. And though Mr Saakashvili said that posing a "physical threat" to the Olympic Games is "neither in our plans, nor in our capability"[6], when in May 2012 secret caches of arms and ammunition were found in Abkhazia (supposedly to be used for terrorist attacks before and during the Games), many in Moscow accused Georgian special services of cooperating with terrorists, though no relevant evidence was provided then or subsequently.

This incident exposed the main problem of 2014 Olympics – the security of the Games. For one, the Games will be held in the immediate proximity of the turbulent North Caucasus republics and might be targeted for terrorist attacks by North Caucasian extremist organizations (the recent Volgograd bombings giving all the more rise for such concern). Second, the Olympic venues are located at the site of the tragic history of Russian conquest of Caucasus (Russian-Caucasian war that lasted for half of the 19th century), increasing security-related risks for the Olympics. And thirdly, the Olympic Games are to be held not in one of the inner regions of Russia but by the border considered by Russia to be its border with the independent state of Abkhazia and by Georgia (along with the vast majority of the world) as the state border between Georgia and the Russian Federation.

Until the Georgian parliamentary election in October 2012, tensions around Sochi Olympics were enflamed by both sides: Mr Saakashvili was nurturing idea of boycotting the Games (though failing to gain international support), whilst Russia was trying to highlight Georgia as the main threat to the security of the Games (also without any success internationally). There were almost no relations between Tbilisi, on one side, and Moscow, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) on the other, apart from the sluggish Geneva consultations. Moscow managed to secure the recognition of Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) by Nicaragua, Venezuela, Tuvalu and Nauru but no more countries, whilst, by acknowledging the Circassian genocide Tbilisi managed to sow mistrust between Abkhazians and Northern Caucasians (Adygs – western Circassians – in particular), as moral and political support the Circassians might have expected from their kindred Abkhazians was received from Georgians instead, against whom they fought in the Abkhazian war of 1992-93.    

Following the change of government in Georgia, official Tbilisi's position shifted dramatically. New Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili declared that Georgia should participate in the Sochi Olympics[7], whilst the National Olympic Committee (NOC) in May 2013, formally decided to send Georgian athletes to Sochi. Steps taken by Tbilisi with regard to Sochi should be considered against the background of the new policy of normalizing relations with Russia, which included readiness to change the North Caucasus outreach policy of the previous government to exclude components Russia found irritating and alarming[8]. Georgia even offered its help in providing security for the Games, as stated by Minister of Defence of Georgia Irakli Alasania during his visit to USA (it appears his choice of place to make this announcement was not coincidental)[9].

New developments in Georgian-Russian relations, however, have had little impact on mutual relations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi (and Tskhinvali)[10]. Quite another matter is the increasing mistrust between Moscow and Sukhumi[11]. Among other things, Abkhaz expectations of seeing benefits from the preparations for the Games some 30 kilometres away in Sochi were disappointed, including plans for the operation of an airport Sukhumi "for the Games". In addition, stringent security measures have greatly inconvenienced the residents of Abkhazia. On the other side, throughout Russia the grudge expressed through the "Stop Feeding the Caucasus" slogan is growing (and which is fully applicable to both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as the two are heavily financially dependent on Russia). Also, two recent double murders in Abkhazia – of the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Sukhumi D. Vishernev and his spouse and of a Russian businessman and his female travelling companion have created additional anxiety.

Pre-Olympic Carrot

The majority of observers believe that no Russian abrupt moves in relation to Georgia are to be expected until the Games are over. The successful and safe conduct of the Games is a matter of honour for the Russian Federation and for President Vladimir Putin, personally, therefore, maintaining calm (political calm included) around all things Olympic is necessary. At the same time, the current Georgian leadership is in reality interested in reducing the tensions in its relations with Moscow and therefore will not make any unexpected moves in the run-up to the Olympics.

This is why until the completion of the Games in Sochi, Russia will be applying a "carrot policy" to Georgia, though it has less leverage on Georgia than it does on Armenia and Ukraine. Special representatives of the parties, Zurab Abashidze (Georgian prime ministerial envoy for relations with Russia) and Grigoriy Karasin (Russian deputy foreign minister), though assessing outcomes of the first year of relations as "positive", find it hard to point to specific areas where they could boast of rosy prospects for further cooperation against the background of commonly known "red lines" regarding the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The most Georgian citizens expect out of the talks is Russia relaxing its visa requirements. In answer to these expectations, Putin offered Georgians his first "carrot", announcing on 19 December that "we absolutely could go back to a visa-free regime”[12]. It is doubtful such an offer would be more attractive for Georgia than further liberalization of visa relations with the EU if it comes down to a choice - i.e., if the EU's responses to challenges constantly posed by Russia (in Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia) finally become adequate. Another would-be "carrot" is expressed through vague hints as to how useful it would be for Georgia to be joined with Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) under the aegis of Eurasian Union with prospects of restoration of the territorial integrity of the country as a confederation, for instance. But these vague oratories can convince only simpletons in Georgia, or those pretending to be so.

In future Russia may offer Georgia participation in some lucrative energy projects, but given the low level of trust towards Russia, it is less likely that even the politically inexperienced Georgian government will be lured into such a deal. The Russian side may try to realize the Georgian idea of restoring railway traffic through Abkhazia, but that bears prospects for only limited economic gain for Georgia whilst offering considerable political gains to Russia itself. It is hard to imagine what other "carrots" Russia may produce to try to lure Georgia into its integration projects.

Post-Olympic Stick...

But even after the Olympics no breakthroughs are to be expected in Georgian-Russian relations, according to, for instance, co-reporters of PACE on Georgia and Russia[13]. Moreover, there is a concern that following the Olympic Games, Russian pressure on Georgia will only strengthen, as the post-Olympic period holds developments not likely to smooth over contradictions between the parties but rather to sharpen them even more. It would suffice to mention the signing of the Association Agreement between EU and Georgia planned for 2014, and Tbilisi's joining the NATO Response Force in 2015 (at the November 2013 Vilnius Summit of the EU Eastern Partnership Georgia signed a framework agreement on joining civil missions and military operations of the EU). Given the Ukrainian (and Armenian) experience, a harder Russian line should be expected in her pursuit of preventing Georgia from signing the Association Agreement with the EU. All else aside, here focus falls on Armenia as well, for whom a "roadmap" for accession to the Russian-led Customs Union has been rushed to approval, but whose "customs relations" with Russia remain literally and metaphorically "in the air" as there are no direct overland transport links between the two countries.

Therefore, given Putin's statement that Russia is not planning to leave the South Caucasus, but moreover, intends to strengthen its positions there[14], it may be supposed that certain effort will be exerted to draw Georgia into the Customs Union and attach it to Eurasian Union idea[15]. If such a development were to take place, the prospect of Georgia's admission to NATO, as remote as it may seem now, will be completely removed from the agenda. This in turn would place Azerbaijan in a more complicated position and give Russia the opportunity to establish control over its energy resources (and those of Central Asia) and "tie" the South Caucasus as a whole to Russia so fast as to oust the West from the region completely.

Following its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia no longer has a wide selection of economic and political levers over Georgia. From this standpoint the following threats might be listed as follows:

  1. Banning imports of Georgian products, as Russia did in 2006. For instance, in October 2013, Chief Medical Officer of Russian Federation again spoke of an alleged nonconformity to standards of some Georgian wines[16]. But past experience shows that Russian embargos do not lead to Georgian economic meltdown.
  2. In the name of "normalization" of migration policy[17], deportation from Russia of Georgian labour migrants – as happened on a limited scale in 2006. This might have a negative impact, since Georgian citizens employed in Russia send back to their relatives at home more cash than Georgians in all other countries of the world combined[18]. Yet the majority of Georgian labour migrants are in Russia legally, and sanctions against illegal migrants will have only limited effect.
  3. Disruption of Geneva Consultations – the only format for the exchange of opinions between official representatives of Tbilisi, on one side, and Sukhumi and Tskhinvali on the other. Even this would not be seen as a disaster in Georgia, for these consultations have yielded few outcomes, and illusions about rapid reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have long been abandoned.
  4. Continued "borderization" of South Ossetia and seizure of parts of adjacent Georgian regions. The process is causing very pained reaction in Georgia, but for Russia it is also a costly endeavour, not only politically but money-wise as well: up to 75 per cent of the perimeter of South Ossetia abuts the remainder of Georgia and the human resources required to seize and effectively defend these territories is lacking in South Ossetia.  
  5. Instigation of problems in the Georgian energy sector. Georgia's dependency on imports of Russian energy carriers has been insignificant of late, but Russian companies (including state-owned ones) are strongly represented in both the electricity generation and distribution sectors in Georgia. But here as well Russia is limited in its capacity to stir the situation up and the Georgian authorities should have at their disposal means of rapid response to artificially created problems.
  6. Attempts to cause unrest in Georgia as a whole or in some of its regions through ethnic or religious strife. But for such an attempt to succeed, the social and political background should be ripe and this is only possible through blunders of the Georgian authorities themselves.

So it may be argued that none of the threats listed are lethal for Georgia on their own, though integrated and simultaneous application of them might bring the country to the brink of serious social and political crisis. In such case, Russia, the initiator of the problem to begin with, would use the opportunity to "rush to the neighbour's aid".

The direct channel of Russian influence in Georgia is the Church. Against the background of very complicated interstate relations, the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) retain equal, mutually respectful relations based not only on common faith but also the alignment of their political (however controversial the last statement might seem) interests.  The liberal, Western-oriented part of Georgian society fears that, given the traditionally high level of public trust in the GOC on one hand and the quite palpable influence on it of Russian theology (the most retrogressive wing of it at that) on the other, the link between the Russian and Georgian churches may be used a subtle but effective means of increasing Russia's power over Georgia. Russia posing itself as global bulwark of Christian values[19] might strengthen the attraction of Georgian clerics towards this new "moral compass". This process is constrained somewhat by the ethnic nationalism of Georgian clergy, however.

Post-Olympic club

And finally, there is an even bigger stick, a "club" if you will - the threat of use of force (a pretext can be created for this) or use of force itself. Russian military expert Aleksandr Khramchikhin believes that in case of resumption of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh (which he deems "practically unavoidable"), Russian forces will have "to push through Georgia" to aid the 102nd Military Base in Armenia. Khramchikhin wrote: "If we have to advance ourselves, simultaneously controlling part of Georgian territory and communications through it to Armenia for a long period of time (italics mine, IH) – this is much more complicated task, SMD[20] won't cope, and other districts should also be engaged."[21] Even before that, another Russian military expert, pondering scenarios of Western military action against Iran[22] raised the issue of "ensuring efficiency" of the Russian forces in Armenia. According to said expert, the Russian General Staff will be planning preventive measures in order to provide logistics to its forces from the rear in critical conditions[23]. But the "rear" for the 102nd Russian Military Base in Gyumri is Georgia, whose opinions on such a development will merely be ignored, while offensive weapons are deployed to Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia[24]. All of the above looks especially alarming given Russia's persistent refusal to bind itself with obligation of non-use of force against Georgia[25].

The prospect of Russian military engagement if "the authorities of Azerbaijan decide to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh through force" is mentioned by Commander of Russian troops in Armenia, Col Andrey Ruzinskiy[26]. It should be mentioned here that Russia is increasing its military presence in Armenia, expanding the area in which military infrastructure is deployed. Notably, President Putin's visit to Armenia on 2 December 2013 started at the Russian military base, when Mr Putin landed not in Yerevan but immediately in Gyumri. In fact, Moscow is intensively arming not only Armenia, but also Azerbaijan, explaining this by the necessity of maintaining military parity in the region[27], but hushing up the fact Georgia has "fallen out" of this regional parity[28]. Following Armenia's unprecedentedly large-scale military exercises in Karabakh in October 2012, a high ranking officer of the General Staff of Military Forces of Armenia said that the Armenian forces practiced scenarios involving missile strikes with the range exceeding 300km, while intended targets included "military and economic facilities, oil and gas infrastructure in particular, - energy carriers of economic significance"[29]. Needless to say, this implies certain dangers for Georgia.

*          *          *

Given the change of government in Georgia, the Sochi Olympic Games have opened up opportunities for the Georgian and Russian sides to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and to jointly ensure the security and stability of their common border. However, whether this opportunity will actually be used depends on political will of the parties, mainly the Russian side.

After the Olympics are over, bilateral relations will undergo yet another trial, as Russia is expected to try to "divert" Georgia from the path of Euro-Atlantic integration and towards joining the Customs Union, Eurasian Economic Community and further on into the planned Eurasian Union.

In pursuit of said goal Russia might pursue a "carrot and stick" approach, Abkhazia and South Ossetia being both the "carrot" - namely, the promise of resolving the conflicts under conditions acceptable for Georgia within a common Eurasian space - and the "club" - direct military attacks against Georgia through these bridgeheads.

[1] Adopted on 4 July 2007, at IOC's session in Guatemala

[3] ibid.

[4] See Ivlian Haindrava, "A Caucasian Home as Designed by Tbilisi", Russia in Global Affairs, June 24, 2012. http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/A-Caucasian-Home-as-Designed-by-Tbilisi-15581

[5] «Хлопонин: Грузия разыгрывает 'черкесскую карту' к Олимпийским играм», Взгляд, 14 июля 2011 г.

[10] Cf. Interview given by P.Zakareishvili to BBC, January 3, 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/international/2014/01/131106_georgia_reconciliation_ministry.shtml

[15] Cf. for instance: Dmitry Trenin "Georgia on Russia’s Mind?" http://carnegie.ru/eurasiaoutlook/?fa=53627 18 November 2013

[17] One of the topics touched upon in Presidential Address of the President Putin to the Federal Assembly, 12 December 2013. http://www.regnum.ru/news/1719901.html  

[19] Cf President Putin's speech at the Valday Club meeting http://www.rg.ru/2013/09/19/stenogramma-site.html 19 September 2013, Presidential Address to Federal Assembly http://kremlin.ru/news/19825  12 December 2013, L. Shevtsova's "Putin's Valday Doctrine" (Л.Шевцова, «Валдайская доктрина Путина») http://www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=23280 23 September 2013. 

[20] Southern Military District – editor's note

[21] Aleksandr Khramchikhin "Southern District: Adversaries are of No Consequence to Russia" (Александр Храмчихин: «Южный округ: противники на Кавказе России не страшны»)

http://rusplt.ru/policy/yujnyiy-okrug-protivniki-na-kavkaze-rossii-ne-strashnyi.html 7 October 2013.

[22] For the moment of the completion of given article threat of such development is at its lowest in recent years, but nobody can pledge for what future might bring – author's note.

[23] 'Military Exercise of Particular Importance' («Маневры особой важности»)  http://www.ng.ru/politics/2012-01-16/3_kartblansh.html 16 January 2012.

[24] Russian and Georgian Armies 5 Years After (Армии России и Грузии: 5 лет спустя) http://www.belvpo.com/ru/28815.html 8 August 2013.

[25] "Efforts to make Russian Federation assume obligation on nonuse of force are pointless:  Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation with OSCE" («Попытки добиться обязательств РФ о неприменении силы против Грузии не имеют смысла: постпред РФ при ОБСЕ» http://www.regnum.ru/news/1719901.html 15 October 2013.

[28]  In Global Militarization Index - 2013, as draw up by Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), Armenia took up 4th place in the list of most militarized countries, Azerbaijan holding 9th and Georgia 54th positions (Russia - 3rd, Turkey 23rd, Iran - 28th) http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-abroad/georgia/1730118.html 8 November 2013