Is Georgia's decision to participate in the Sochi Olympics a realpolitik achievement or a defeat for civil society? On his visit to Yerevan in January, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili expressed enthusiastic approval for his Armenian colleagues’ policies of balance and complimentarism over the last two decades toward a wide range of international actors, including the United States, Russia, Georgia, Iran, and the EU. It seems obvious that the new Georgian PM has intentions to conduct a similar policy for Georgia.
Georgia’s recent unanimous vote to participate in the 2014 Winter Sochi Olympics adds to the indications of Ivanishvili's even-keel policy outlook. Not long ago, Saakashvili’s Georgia was on the path to boycott the Games because of the 2008 war. Ivanishvili’s platform is to ease tensions with Russia. He is apparently ready “to swallow the bitter pill” of territorial integrity for this purpose. Pragmatism in relations with Russia is considered the most important objective for Georgia in the hopes for economic achievements, such as access to the Russian market for Georgian wine and Borjomy water, and to secure the entrance of Georgian work migrants to Russia.
Georgian participation in the Olympics can be interpreted as a symbolic act of rapprochement and demonstration of loyalty toward Russia. From the Russian side, Russian President Vladimir Putin may evaluate the new Georgian leader’s compliance as his own achievement, especially considering that the Russian president is personally supervising the Games. However, it is not Russian policymakers who can claim credit for normalization, rather the new Georgian establishment gets merit; they’ve been making the first moves.
However, there is a downside to détente. Economic imperatives aside, Georgian indemnity became a blow to both countries’ civil societies that advocate for the social justice and human values rather than for pragmatic benefits. Such a realpolitik turn by the two states weakens the Russian and Georgian civil society activists’ position, which was partly based on moral support for Georgia – a country seen by many as an example of successful liberalization from the Soviet and post-Soviet sphere of influence. With the 2014 Olympics becoming more and more a centerpiece for the region, and with Georgia opting to take part, activists have lost this international event as a prime opportunity to highlight their notable issues.