The Russian drone and helicopter came whizzing in from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, and hovered over nearby Georgian police posts and villages, the foreign ministry reported. Tbilisi described the act as another violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and the 2008 ceasefire agreement with Russia.
In a March 7 TV appearance, though, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili tried to allay mounting fears over Russian pressure; even though he himself has repeatedly told the public to expect such tactics as Georgia prepares to sign an association agreement and free-trade deal with the European Union this year.
“I’d like to ask everyone… not to overstate the threats expected from Russia,” Garibashvili said in an interview with Georgian Public Television. “We know what these threats are, but I have heard . . . exaggerated forecasts and I don’t think it is right. We don’t have to stress people too much.”
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.
For the world at large, the glitch at Sochi that grabbed the most headlines this weekend was the failure of one of the Olympic rings to light up properly. But it was a hitch with the map of Georgia that caught most eyes south of the Russian border, in Georgia itself.
When the map appeared on the arena floor during the Games' February 7 opening ceremony, a cloud obscured separatist Abkhazia from view. And not only was Abkhazia shrouded from view, but fellow breakaway territory South Ossetia hid behind both a cloud and the median dividing the map in two.
The map's representation of the two territories was widely perceived in Georgia as an attempt by Moscow to avoid an outburst of anger from Tbilisi, which has been pressured to boycott the Games, but without stepping away from Russia's controversial 2008 decision to recognize the two regions as independent states from Georgia.
Georgia argues that Russia violated the terms of the two states' 2008 cease-fire by moving troops into the two territories, and recognizing them both as independent states.
The de-facto heads of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia allegedly were on hand for the opening ceremony at Sochi.
When it comes to the Caucasus, cheeseburgers do not easily mix with conflicts.
A spokesperson for McDonald's Europe has denied to EurasiaNet.org that the US hamburger giant intends to open an outlet in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, located just to the south of Sochi, the Russian host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Last week, Abkhazia, recognized by most of the world as part of Georgia, appeared on the McDonald's website in a list of potential international franchise sites. The inclusion, interpreted by many Georgians as a sign that McDonald's was recognizing Abkhazia's independence (as have Russia and and a handful of chums), sparked a wave of anger within Georgia against the popular restaurant chain.
The spokesperson wrote in a January 16 email, however, that, despite Abkhazia's appearance on the list, "we currently have no plans to develop restaurants there."
"We apologise if this has caused any offence or confusion," she said.
The territory has been removed from the rundown of target franchise locations. The spokesperson, who asked to be identified only as such, did not respond in time for publication to a question about how Abkhazia had ended up on the list.
Its appearance under the heading "Select a Country" had sparked some Georgians to discuss boycotting or launching protests against Georgia's four McDonald's restaurants.
The McDonald's Europe spokesperson, though, said that the drop-down menu "should have read 'select a market'," in keeping with the company's usual terminology.
In the wake of the outcry, Georgia's McDonald's franchisee, Temur Chkhonia, pledged to take the restaurant to Abkhazia, but that prospect appears one that neither the de-facto Abkhaz government (wary of all things Georgian), nor, now, McDonald's are eager to embrace.
Georgia claims it has averted an accidental encroachment on its sovereignty by one of the world's most powerful forces. No, not by Russia. By McDonald's.
The Illinois-based hamburger giant recently advertised on its website for a franchisee in Abkhazia, a breakaway region that Tbilisi and most of the international community (unlike Russia and a handful of pals) see as part of Georgia, and not, as the McDonald's ad suggested, an independent country.
Given Abkhazia's proximity to the 2014 Winter Olympics host city of Sochi, opening up a restaurant in the region may well have struck some at the Games' "Official Restaurant" as a swell idea. But in Tbilisi, the ad was construed as a plan to recognize Abkhazia’s de-facto independence from Georgia.
The question was how to respond. Severing ties with McDonald's was not in the cards. McDonald's has pretty much got Georgia hooked on its menu, free wifi and kids' parties.
Some people mooted the idea of boycotting the company's four Georgia-based restaurants. Or of protests, that ancient Georgian tradition.
But before matters reached such a head, the company deleted the statement, now found only in a Google cache or referenced in news stories.
McDonald’s franchisee for Georgia, businessman Temur Chkonia, took credit for the move. Calling the Abkhazia ad "a very primitive mistake," Chkonia told Netgazeti.ge that he had talked with a lawyer for McDonald's about the solicitation, and is awaiting a written explanation.
The customs-free wonderland that Russia is busy building around itself to counterbalance the European Union will come with still more unrecognized or half-recognized lands. On December 10, the Russian Duma approved a 2012 agreement to drop customs duties between Russia and the twin breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Ratification of the agreements will become an important step toward intensifying trade turnover between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia and members of the Customs Union,” pledged Eurasian Integration Parliamentary Committee Chairman Leonid Slutskiy, ITAR-TASS reported.
The two tiny enclaves -- in Moscow’s view, perfectly sovereign lands -- are tied to Russia’s apron both by their economies and their claims to independent statehood. Now, they can export customs-free to Russia anything but sugar, tobacco and alcohol. Russia also cancelled export duties on set volumes of petroleum exported to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Of course, there is more in this for the territories than for Russia, which periodically injects aid into both breakaway territories. The Kremlin is pouring so much money into Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it will not even notice a revenue-drop from the removal of duties on imports from and petroleum exports into the regions, said Slutskiy.
In 2014-2015, Moscow plans to invest over 3 billion rubles (about $92 million) in Abkhazia alone, according to the region's de-facto official news agency, Apsnypress.
If the Abkhaz want to visit the Winter Olympics next February in the Russian city of Sochi, about 25 kilometers to the north, they might need to walk. And even then there is no guaranteed access through a gateway that Russia plans to keep ajar.
In a recent decree laying out the do's and don'ts during the Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for strictly limiting access to Sochi from the de-facto border crossing with breakaway Abkhazia, recognized by Moscow as a sovereign state.
Residents living in the border area will have some freedom of movement, though they might find interior ministry troops hanging out in their backyards. The troops also will be policing the coastline south of Tuapse, a seaside city north of Sochi.
The Sochi area itself will be broken up into restricted zones, entrance into which will be subjected to search. All demonstrations, unless part of the Olympics, will be prohibited. The sale of poisonous or potentially poisonous substances, save for prescription drugs, will also be banned.
Such restrictions are not exactly what Abkhazia, which largely depends on Russia for its economic survival and, itself, cannot participate in the Games, had in mind.
Autumn is a relatively busy time in Georgia -- the farmers are harvesting grapes, the kids are heading back to school, and the Russians are building more fences.
On September 17, Georgian journalists came within a gnat's nose of a trip to a South Ossetian prison when they arrived in a Georgian village, Ditsi, to film Russian soldiers fencing off access to a family cemetery.
Ditsi neighbors the separatist region of South Ossetia, an area babysat by Russian troops in contravention of the cease-fire agreement ending the 2008 Russia-Georgia war over the territory.
Overall since the war, in an alleged attempt to enhance security , Russian troops have erected 27 kilometers of fence through 15 Georgian villages close to South Ossetia.
Georgia on August 8 vowed to start direct talks with the representatives of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it may need first to deal with that uninvited party to the conversation, Russia.
Speaking on the fifth anniversary of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia over the two territories, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili called on Georgians to wipe the slate clean and collectively reach out to the regions, now located behind a line of Russian troops. “We need to get the strength to forgive...but also we have to accept our own mistakes and undo what still can be undone,” Ivanishvili said, Georgian news outlets reported.
“We are ready for a direct dialogue with our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers,” he went on to say. “I am confident that we will find a common language to work toward a shared future.”
One Georgian government minister specified later that Tbilisi does not intend to accept in any way the regions' Russian-backed claims to independence from Georgia. “This means restoring mutual trust between the peoples and by no means between subjects of international law,” said Alex Petriashvili, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, Netgazeti.ge reported.
State Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili told RFE/RL's Georgian service that the new policy would mark a change from the more maximalist, nationalist sentiments that existed prior to the war and an attempt to be more accommodating to the interests of the breakaway regions.
Separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia may be politically and financially tied to Moscow’s apron strings, but, lucky for them, there is no sugar daddy like Russia. Moscow just told breakaway Abkhazia that it has 1.1 billion Russian rubles to spend by year’s end. That’s a staggering $33.7 million for a tiny piece of mostly unrecognized territory. The high-maintenance Russian protégé promised it will spare no effort to use up the cash.
Ever since Russia claimed guardianship of what it calls the young and independent states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, the twins have been a money pit for the Kremlin. Last year, South Ossetia showed up saying that it can’t seem to find $27 million that Russia spared, prompting Moscow to tighten the financial oversight, but not its wallet.
Abkhazia, apparently, has been using the aid more responsibly, though Russians auditors complained earlier in the year that Sokhumi was behind schedule with the spending of the aid. The latest 1.1. billion is what’s left of 10.9 billion rubles ($334 million) that Moscow gave to the separatist territory for 2010-2013 to get in shape.