BOCHAROV RUCHEI, Russia, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin may meet his Georgian counterpart in Sochi during the Olympic Games, a senior Kremlin official said on Thursday, in what would be the first meeting between the two leaders since a brief 2008 war.
President Georgy Margvelashvili, who replaced Mikheil Saakashvili last year, has promised to press ahead with European integration efforts in the former Soviet South Caucasus nation, which Moscow wants to keep under its influence.
Georgia, criss-crossed by oil and natural gas pipelines, fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008 under Saakashvili over the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia later recognised the two breakaway regions as independent, a move which caused Tbilisi to cut diplomatic ties with its former Soviet master.
Asked whether a meeting between Putin and Margvelashvili, who will be among the 60 world leaders to attend the Games which start this Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that a meeting during the Games was possible.
“This has not been ruled out. He is our guest,” Peskov told reporters.
Georgia is strategically important for Europe, which gets Caspian gas and oil from pipelines that run through the country of 4.5 million. Tbilisi hopes eventually to join the European Union and NATO.
But Moscow still regards Georgia, and most other ex-Soviet republics, as part of its sphere of influence and Putin has stepped up efforts to boost Russia’s sway over the region since returning to the Kremlin last year.
NATO criticised Russia on Wednesday for expanding its border deeper into Abkhazia, which is close to Sochi, although Moscow has said the move is a temporary step to expand a security zone around the Winter Olympics.
Putin has staked his personal reputation to hold successful Olympic Games which cost Russia roughly $50 billion and have been marred by allegations of corruption and security challenges. (Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)