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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Olympic boycott drive resurfaces in Georgia ahead of election

Olympic boycott drive resurfaces in Georgia ahead of electionGeorgian president Mikhail Saakashvili (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov) Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)

Calls are rising again in Georgia to boycott the Winter Olympic Games in Russia’s Sochi. The issue, which seemed to have been buried with President Mikhail Saakashvili’s decline from power, resurfaced ahead of next week’s presidential election.
The call to boycott the games in Russia was voiced by President Saakashvili last week, after the Olympic torch relay started in Moscow. Among the torch bearers was Ivan Nechaev, a Russian pilot, who was shot down during the 2008 military conflict between Russia and Georgia, in which Moscow defended the then-breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from a Georgian incursion. The president saw Nechaev’s participation in the relay as an insult to Tbilisi.
“I am certain it was done on purpose. So is their plan to invite delegations from Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia,” the Saakashvili said. “They will take guests of the Olympics to tour Abkhazia, use Abkhazia’s infrastructure without our permission.” 
Saakashvili, a long-time critic of Russia, was vocally championing the idea of boycotting the Olympics in a political protest, when Georgia’s government was formed by his political party. 
But his supporters lost the October 2012 parliamentary election to the current Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, which left the president’s power base greatly diminished. The new cabinet scrapped many of Saakashvili’s policies, including the planned Olympic boycott.
The renewed call not to send Georgian athletes to Sochi was supported by some members of the former Georgian government and Saakashvili supporters. A petition to the national Olympic Committee to boycott the games has been signed by some 10,000 Georgians. 
Official Tbilisi however objected to the idea. Ivanishvili said an ‘impulsive’ decision not to attend the games may find no international support for Georgia. He added that if Georgia feels it is being humiliated by Russia’s actions, like the episode with Nechaev, boycotting Sochi Olympics may become possible.
“There is enough time and I don’t understand why we must rush. We can reject the invitation at any time, but it must not look like we reject on one day and accept in on the next and vice versa. Let’s wait and see how things develop,” he told Russia’s Channel One TV.
Ivanishivili’s government has taken a number of moves to normalize Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow after a period of frosty alienation during its Saakashvili-backed predecessors, including successful re-opening Russian markets to Georgian goods.
But the two capitals remain at odds over Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as sovereign nations and send its troops to guard their borders. Georgia considers both regions as part of its territory temporarily occupied by Russia. The majority of UN nations so far have not joined Russia’s recognition of the two nations’ independence.
The Olympic debate comes ahead of the presidential election in Georgia scheduled for a week from Sunday. Georgy Margvelashvili, a candidate from Ivanishvili’s party, is expected to replace Saakashvili as the head of the country.
Meanwhile the Olympic torch relay continues in Russia. A total of 85 torchbearers are to take part on Thursday in the 17-km run in the city of Vladimir, a ‘Golden Ring’ city east of Moscow. Among them is the famous Georgian-Russian singer and showman Soso Pavliashvili, and the rector of the city’s state university, Anzor Saralidze.