As Georgia and Russia prepare to drown the memories of their 2008 war in wine and water, Georgia's legendary mineral-water company Borjomi, the nation's carbonated pride and joy, has been sold to a Russian firm.
Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group, a Kremlin-friendly investment group, has purchased a controlling stake in the production of the salty-tasting Borjomi, Georgian and Russian news outlets reported on January 27. The family of the late Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, who owned the stake, confirmed the deal, estimated at $300 million, but noted that they will retain a role in the company's management.
The controversial sale -- some Georgians view it as part of a sell-out to the enemy -- comes against the backdrop of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's attempts to find a way to Russian hearts through Russian stomachs. Next week, Moscow will host key talks on canceling the prohibition on Georgian drinks, which has put the Russians on a Georgian-free diet since 2006. At the time, Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s top food-taster, declared that beverages from NATO-aspiring, US-friendly Georgia were inimical to Russian health.
If the past is prelude to the future, a 2009 cable from former US Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft, released by WikiLeaks on December 2, reveals some of the reasoning that may have influenced President Mikheil Saakashvili’s surprise November 23 offer to sign a non-use-of-force agreement with Russia.
In a June 18, 2009 dispatch on military cooperation with Georgia, Tefft reportedly wrote Washington that "[i]n the months after" the August 2008 war with Russia, "senior Georgian officials expressed their willingness to pursue a non-use of force agreement if Russia made certain concessions." Noting that the concept had not yet been “explored” with Tbilisi, Tefft supposedly reasoned that "if Georgia were to call Russia's bluff and offer to sign such an agreement with Russia itself … the burden would shift to Russia to demonstrate the sincerity of its commitment to stability" in the South Caucasus.
"It is unlikely that Russia, which still maintains the fiction that it is not a party to the  conflict, would accept Georgia's offer, but it would be left on the defensive," the cable continues. "Meanwhile Georgia could pursue its defensive development with a ready answer to any Russian claims of belligerence or provocation."
Whether or not Russia privately has indicated any willingness to make concessions to Georgia following Saakashvili's non-use-of-force offer remains unknown. Publicly, however, the Kremlin has cold-shouldered the proposal, suggesting that Tbilisi ought to sign any such agreement with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such an idea is a non-starter as far as Tbilisi is concerned.