This week's political upset in Georgia, which was a major defeat for the Kremlin's long time nemesis President Mikheil Saakashvili and may soon see the Russia-friendly tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili become prime minister in a more parliament-centered system, has many experts in both countries wondering whether the deep freeze in Moscow-Tbilisi relations that's prevailed since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war may finally begin to thaw?
The short answer, most say, is yes – but only in modest steps.
The two countries were joined within the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for almost 200 years, and have many historic synergies that could be re-energized, but if Moscow is hoping to restore the old dependency relationship with Georgia it's certain to be disappointed. Following the 2003 "Rose Revolution," which tore Georgia from Russia's orbit and helped to trigger a series of pro-democracy revolts around the former USSR, Georgia consciously set out to integrate with the European Union and NATO. Those goals remain anathema to the Kremlin but Mr. Ivanishvili endorses them just as strongly as Mr. Saakashvili does.
Nor is Russia likely to back down on its support for two Georgian breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which fought and won bitter wars of independence from Georgia in the 1990s. When Saakashvili launched a military invasion of South Ossetia four years ago, killing a dozen Russian peacekeeping troops, it triggered a massive Russian reaction that smashed the Georgian army and led Russia to officially recognize the independence of the two little statelets. While Ivanishvili has blamed Saakashvili for starting the war, experts say it would be impossible for him, or any Georgian politician, to concede the permanent loss of those territories.
But the personal antipathy between Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which goes back to the "Rose Revolution," may have played a role in the near-total alienation of Russia from Georgia following the war: The two sides have no diplomatic relations and trade between the two – Russia was formerly Georgia's chief trading partner – has sunk to just 4 percent of Georgia's total. Mr. Putin once notoriously threatened to "string Saakashvili up" by his nether parts, and swore never to speak to him. That could become a thing of the past next year, when Saakashvili leaves the presidency and the newly-empowered parliament takes control in Georgia, presumably with Ivanishvili at the helm.
"At least opening a dialogue is a task that can be easily achieved," once Saakashvili is gone, says Archil Gegashidze, an expert with the independent Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.
"Now we don't have diplomatic relations and Russia is occupying our territory, but there is space for improving relations with our neighbor. Ivanishvili may intend to explore those possibilities, without crossing any red lines," he adds.
At his first press conference following Monday's election, Ivanishvili blamed Saakashvili for aggravating relations with Russia, but insisted that he would follow the same basic course.
"I think Russia's irritation over Georgia's bid to join NATO was deepened by Saakashvili," Ivanishvili said.
"I know the idea of Georgia's integration into NATO is not very pleasant for Russia, but I don't think it's a strategic issue for them. I think it's possible, with the correct diplomacy, to convince Russia that it wouldn't be a threat.... [However] we will not change our strategy of integrating with NATO for anything," he added.
Ivanishvili, who made an estimated $6 billion fortune through metals and banking in Russia during the freewheeling 1990s, is ranked No. 153 in Forbes' list of global billionaires, and is far and away Georgia's richest person. He liquidated his Russian holdings last year – though he still reportedly owns shares in Russia's state gas monopoly Gazprom – after deciding to put together his "Georgian Dream" movement in opposition to Saakashvili. He claims to have since spent about $1.7 billion of his own money on philanthropic projects around Georgia, such as paving roads, installing utilities in village homes, and making cash gifts to newlyweds.
Saakashvili supporters tried frantically during the election to paint Ivanishvili as a Kremlin stooge, but experts say that seems unlikely. The truth, some argue, is that a majority of Georgians are tired of bad relations with Russia and hoped for a change.
"It's extremely complicated. Before campaigning, Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream said they would improve ties [with Russia]... saying there is no reason for animosity and we should open up economic ties," says Lawrence Sheets, project director for the South Caucasus International Crisis Group in Tbilisi. He cites public opinion surveys that show up to 88 percent of Georgians disapprove of the current state of Russia-Georgia relations.
But, he adds, the big issues of Georgia's Westward trend and Russia's support for the breakaway territories will stand in the way.
"It's impossible to install a totally pro-Russian government in Georgia after the past 200 years of history," says Mr. Sheets. "Even to have a 'balanced' government that accommodates both the West and Russia is much easier said than done. Ivanishvili has said that his first visit abroad will be to the US. How do you think that goes down in the Kremlin?"
Experts point out that Putin has yet to speak about Georgia's electoral shift, much less congratulate Ivanishvili. Russian analysts say they do expect improvements in ties, especially after Saakashvili leaves next year, but think it will probably be led by economic changes – Georgia's main exports, wine and mineral water, are currently banned in the Russian market – and a gradual restoration of traditional cultural ties.
"I think the rhetoric may become more neutral," says Alexei Vlasov, director of the Center for Post-Soviet Space Studies at Moscow State University. "I don't think a breakthrough will come from the top, but in the non-governmental sector. Step-by-step the return of academic, cultural exchanges and growth in trade may lead to a different level of relations," Mr. Vlasov says. "If I were a Georgian government minister, I would be actively promoting Russian tourism to Georgia. There are millions of Russians who used to vacation in Georgia, and are deeply nostalgic for its beautiful places, its wine, its culture."
According to official statistics, Russian tourism to Georgia is growing despite all the current restrictions, but remains far below its Soviet-era peak. Many Russians are going instead to the breakaway statelet of Abkhazia which enjoys many of the same natural advantages and has moved aggressively in recent years to attract Russians.
As many as 1 million Georgians live in Russia, many as guest workers, and experts say many more Russians can claim Georgian ancestry.
"I am Georgian through my father, but have lived my entire life in Russia," says Nikolai Svanidze, a famous Russian journalist and TV personality.
"The worsening of relations between our countries has hit me personally very hard. Who could ever have imagined a war between Russia and Georgia? Both nations are so closely interrelated, culturally and historically, that what happened was totally unnatural. I want so much for relations to become normal again. But I fear, as far as the state level is concerned, that's going to be impossible."