Moscow and Tbilisi are still officially at war a year and a half after Russian troops rolled into the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and declared them independent. But quietly, with minimal fanfare on both sides, peace is breaking out. A crucial border crossing reopened last month, direct flights have recommenced, and Russians have begun issuing more visas to Georgian nationals.
The reason for this sudden warming of relations? In large part, the Olympic spirit of peace—or at least Russia's fervent desire to make the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi a trouble-free success. With the Olympic banner now passed from Canada to Russia, the Kremlin wants to do everything possible to ensure that there won't be any more flare-ups over Abkhazia, just 25 miles away from Sochi.
That means soothing differences with Georgia and giving Tbilisi an economic stake in keeping the peace by allowing cross-border trade, once a mainstay of the Georgian economy. Opening the border also helps Russia's main Caucasian ally, Armenia, whose only road access to Russia is via Georgia and which found itself also blockaded by default.
Yerevan has been begging Moscow to open the Georgian road, as the prospects of an opening of the Armenian-Turkish border are receding despite an agreement reached last year. At present, landlocked Armenia can trade only with two of its four neighbors, Iran and Georgia, with the borders closed to Turkey and Azerbaijan since 1992. Turkey has dialed back on its commitment to open the border in part because of a U.S. congressional Foreign Affairs Committee resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, as well as pressure from Azerbaijan, which wants an Armenian withdrawal from the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
But of more immediate concern to Moscow is the prospect of terror attacks from the North Caucasus, which is also in Sochi's neighborhood. Last week the International Olympic Committee expressed confidence that Russia would be able to make the games secure, and on Monday Prime Minister Vladimir Putin formed a security committee to oversee preparations for Sochi's Olympics. This week the chief of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) announced that it had arrested or killed 170 militants in the region this year, and had identified the masterminds of the recent suicide bombings on the Moscow metro and in Dagestan.
But to really ensure a peaceful Olympics, President Dmitry Medvedev will have to do a lot more than let Russian security forces continue business as usual in the Moscow-controlled North Caucasus, arresting and murdering suspects at will. Medvedev's challenge is not only to pacify his empire's most restive corner but the whole explosive neighborhood as well. Making a quiet peace with Georgia is one important step toward that goal.