During the Soviet era, international athletic competition was often seen as an extension of politics. Fans exuded a similar vibe during a recent rugby contest between the Georgian and Russian national teams in Tbilisi.
Playing on Georgian soil for the first time since their 2008 war, Georgia drubbed Russia by a final score of 46-0 on March 17. The shutout was all the more satisfying for the players because it put Georgia atop its European Nations Cup group, while leaving Russia to fifth in the six-team division.
Georgia is the reigning champion of the European Nations Cup, an annual competition among the International Rugby Board’s lower-tier member-countries.
For many of the 30,000 spectators who packed Tbilisi’s Avchala stadium, the match was an opportunity to avenge Georgia’s humiliating defeat during its 2008 war with Russia, and the stationing of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“This match is very important because of the political situation in Georgia. In 2008, there was war. They bombed our country and killed our people,” one young man with a Georgian flag around his shoulders declared before the match started. “We’re gonna kick their ass.”
Georgian television news stations tended to inject an element of patriotism in their coverage. Beaming ear to ear, an anchor and reporter for national broadcaster Imedi TV kicked off post-game coverage by heartily congratulations each other on the Georgian team’s “historic victory.”
Newscasts showed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, his wife, First Lady Sandra Roelofs, and their elder teenage son, Eduard, enthusiastically cheering the Georgian team. For the players themselves, politics didn’t play such an important role in how they approached the match.
A spokesperson for the Georgian Rugby Union stated that the two sides have the long history of warm relations, adding that some Georgian players have played for Russian teams in the past.
“Unfortunately, this event is sometimes influenced by politics, but we are trying to keep away politics as much as possible, although some spectators are still influenced by politics,” Bacho Khurtsidze, the rugby official, said.
That sentiment was echoed at a post-match news conference by the crestfallen Russian team captain, Alexander Yanyushkin.
"We are just athletes. We did not feel any political influence here in Georgia on today's match," he said.
Ultimately, the Georgian fans got their wish – a remorseless thrashing of a detested rival. But any joy generated by the lopsided victory proved fleeting. Victory did little to ease practical problems that Tbilisi is grappling with.
For example, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in recent days has charged repeatedly that the Kremlin is trying to interfere with Georgia’s October parliamentary vote – a response, in part, to Russian President-Elect Vladimir Putin’s claim that the outlook for restoring bilateral relations depends largely on Georgia’s elections. Russia, in turn, has lashed out at ongoing US-Georgian military exercises as “a provocation.”
Visas also are a sore point. Tbilisi in February dropped its visa requirements for Russian citizens; objecting to Georgia’s ban on travel to breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia via Russia, Moscow declined to follow suit.
The fact that the match was played in Georgia this year offered a sign of progress in Georgian-Russian relations. In 2009, fearing the ugly mood of fans, the International Rugby Board opted to move the two teams’ match to Ukraine, and then, the following year, to Turkey; two countries with strong ties with both Georgia and Russia.
Last year, the Georgian team agreed to play a tournament match in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi, just north of the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Zorik Masadilov, the Russian team’s general manager, credited Georgia for making the first step in overcoming the two countries’ sharp differences by playing in Sochi. The 2010 match became mired in controversy, however, when Georgian Minister for Sport and Youth Affairs Lado Vardzelashvili complained that Georgian public television was blocked from providing a live feed of the match, and claimed that Russian authorities detained a Georgian player for two hours without explanation.
The Rugby Union of Russia Press secretary, Sergei Markov insisted the player in question was only detained for 30 minutes, an incident not uncommon for any traveller at the border. The allegations faded when Russia then sent its national youth team to Tbilisi in May 2011 for an International Rugby Union junior tournament involving under-20 national teams.
The Georgian Rugby Union’s Khurtsidze believes that Georgia’s respectful welcome and traditions of hospitality impressed the young Russian players.
“They were delighted when they went back to Russia and told their teammates and everybody that Georgians were fantastic hosts,” he claimed.
For some Georgian fans, the time-honored traditions of hospitality could not rise above lingering animosity relating to the 2008 conflict. Some whistled and booed while the Russian national anthem was played at the March 17 match, and jeered the Russians off the field following the final whistle.
At the post-match press conference, Russian national team coach Kingsley Jones, the former captain of Wales’ top-ranked rugby team, noted that people on the streets in Tbilisi were respectful toward the Russians when they arrived, but not so much immediately after the match. He accepted the behavior, though, as the nature of the sport.
“It’s a fierce game and people might place extra value to it on the outside, but, for the two teams, it’s just rugby,” Jones said.
Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.