In a throwaway remark made on the sidelines of the Sochi Olympics earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he is open to meeting Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Such an encounter, if it ever happens, would be the first top-level Russo-Georgian sit-down since the two countries' 2008 war.
Putin, who gave Georgian TV crews a wide smile and best wishes for the Georgian athletes in Sochi, only uttered the February 10 remark in passing after being asked by a Georgian reporter. “Yeah, why not if he wants to?” was his soundbite in reference to Margvelashvili before walking off to get back to the cares of the Olympics.
But it was enough for Tbilisi to conclude that it had been asked out and that it is time to start preparing for a rendez-vous with the country's Public Enemy Number One.
Georgian media has erupted into constant chitchat about what such an event could involve. President Margvelashvil appears to be busy scrutinizing Putin’s two-second line for hidden meaning, while Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who was not mentioned by Putin, says he will take up the offer.
“As the head of the Georgian government, I am ready for a direct dialogue with the Russian leadership,” Gharibashvili told Imedi news channel. The comment was duly scooped up by Russia's state-run RIA Novosti as "signifying a thaw in bilateral ties."
A choir of other officials from the ruling Georgian Dream, however, keep saying they need to think through any such get-together first.
Georgian officials, indeed, might need quite a few breathing exercises before entering a room that contains Putin.
The challenge for Tbilisi is twofold: What to ask and offer Putin, but how to keep domestic critics at bay.
Saakashvili-era Foreign Minister Giorgi Vashadze was among those who bashed Tbilisi for looking too eager and offering Putin a chance to come off as a constructive person.
Speaking to TV news broadcaster Maestro, Vashadze expressed fears that Putin will want to push away from the Geneva talks about a resolution to the 2008 war and try to keep the topics restricted to wine, Borjomi and flights. (Moscow has given the a-okay to flights between Tbilisi and Sochi continuing after the Olympics, Putin underlined.)
Hearkening back to the Georgian Dream's campaign promises, many Georgians would expect Margvelashvili or Gharibashvili, depending, to make simultaneous progress toward two contradictory goals -- getting Russia to back off breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia and normalizing Tbilisi's relations with Moscow.
Nonetheless, whether or not Putin meant anything by his comment, its timing was auspicious for Moscow. Putin is trying to put his best foot forward as the peace-loving host of the Olympics and a friend of the world's nations. Even before the Games began on February 7, Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitri Peskov was primed for this role, telling reporters that a meeting between Putin and Margvelashvili in Sochi "has not been ruled out."
In later comments to Georgia's Rustavi2, Peskov declined to comment further, noting only that Putin, ever the Olympics host, will be glad to meet anyone who comes as a guest, "whether from Georgia, China or any other country."