The sweet smell of success that surrounded Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili after the so-called ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003 did not linger for long. This young lawyer wanted to drive Georgia towards Europe and the West, but he was soon bogged down in the regional conflicts that have rocked the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have existed in a state of de-facto independence from Tbilisi since the early 1990s. Many Georgians bitterly regard the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a tool to maintain Kremlin influence. Breakaway Chechnya, just across the border, fuels distrust. Russia has accused Georgia of supporting the rebels. And it has reportedly been known for supplies and reinforcements to find their way into Chechnya from Georgian territory. The claims and counter claims have been rattling around for months. In March, Russian helicopters were accused of opening fire in the remote Kodori gorge on the edge of Abkhazia. A report from UN observers concluded that it was not clear who was behind that incident. Nevertheless, Tbilisi continued to argue that Russia was trying to destabilise its territory. In South Ossetia sporadic clashes between pro-independence rebels and Georgian forces have killed dozens of people in the past few years.
Tbilisi has accused the 500-strong Russian peacekeeping force there of siding with the separatists. Another recent low point in Russian-Georgian relations was last year when Moscow banned the importation of mandarin oranges, wine and mineral water on health grounds, severely affecting the Georgian economy. The pair trade diplomatic blows too; Moscow accusing Georgia of nationalism and having an anti-Russian foreign policy, the Georgians claiming their northern neighbours have imperialist aims, and try to use the CIS to maintain their geopolitical clout.