Cold War Between Georgia and Russia

Both Georgia and Armenia go short of gas as Moscow and Tbilisi trade angry words.

Cold War Between Georgia and Russia

Both Georgia and Armenia go short of gas as Moscow and Tbilisi trade angry words.

Large parts of Georgia remained in the cold and Georgian-Russian relations plunged to a new low this week following the interruption of gas supplies by explosions on the main pipeline across the Caucasus mountains.

Armenia also suffered gas shortages in freezing winter temperatures, as the Russian gas company Gazprom promised to restore the line, which seemed to show signs of sabotage. Defects in the pipeline from Azerbaijan to Georgia meant that supplies from the former could not make up the shortfall.

In the middle of the night of January 22, two explosions hit the two pipelines taking Russian gas to Georgia and Armenia, on a mountainous section 30 kilometres south of the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz. Shortly afterwards a high-voltage electricity line in Karachai-Cherkessia was blown up, halting Russian electricity supplies to Georgia.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili blamed Moscow for the loss of power supplies to his country.

“This is an unprecedented act of vandalism – stopping energy supplies in the middle of winter,” an emotional Saakashvili said on television on January 22. He said the explosions were an attempt to force Georgia to hand over control of its gas pipeline and infrastructure to the Russians.

Interior minister Vano Merabishvili went further, calling the incident “a well-organised act of sabotage, and a case - unique in world history - where one country secretly carries out acts of sabotage against another”.

The interior ministry later called on Moscow to hand over two men it claimed were Russian military intelligence agents who it said had carried out acts of sabotage on Georgian territory in 2004-05.

Gazprom issued an appeal “not to politicise the issue” and said it would restore the lines as soon as possible.

“Everyone - Georgians and Russians alike - is equal for the terrorists, and an attempt to politicise the situation will not benefit anybody, especially Georgia,” Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kuprianov told NTV television on January 24.

With temperatures well below zero, only a small part of the Georgian capital Tbilisi was receiving gas three days after the explosion. Electricity was also severely limited.

Armenia also receives most of its gas from Russia via Georgia. Shushan Sardarian, press secretary of the ArmRosgazprom gas company, said that Armenia now had gas only thanks to underground storage facilities in the town of Aparan. She said gas usage had fallen substantially, and the supply of electricity to Georgia had been suspended so as to conserve power for domestic use.

Russia’s ambassador in Tbilisi, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, strongly denied charges of foul play by Moscow, saying it was doing everything it could to get gas to Georgia via Azerbaijan.

“It is illogical… that Russia would first blow up the gas pipeline, and then try to clear up the damage as quickly as possible,” said the ambassador.

When an IWPR reporter visited the scene of the explosions in North Ossetia a few hours later, two-metre-high flames were still leaping into the air.

The authorities in North Ossetia say they are opening a criminal investigation into the cause of the blasts. The Russian federal prosecutor’s office later said the inquiry related to an act of terrorism.

Viktor Magkeyev, who works for the local gas management company affiliated to Gazprom in North Ossetia, told IWPR he believed it had indeed been a terrorist attack.

“We spent two days restoring the pipeline together with our colleagues from Stavropol region, and we came to the conclusion that it was a well planned terrorist act,” said Magkeyev. “There are many facts that provide proof of this. For example, the explosions were remote controlled. I've seen something similar in Chechnya and Dagestan.”

Vladimir Kondratiev, a former army engineers officer who inspected the site, agreed that it was an explosion planned by “professionals”.

An official in the North Ossetian nationalities ministry, who requested anonymity, did not apportion blame for the explosion, but claimed that Moscow was trying to use Georgia’s dependence on Russian gas as a tactic to win political compromises on issues such as the dispute over South Ossetia.

Georgian energy expert Demir Giorkhelidze agreed, saying, “It isn't a matter of forcing the Georgian authorities to their knees - no one today is setting themselves that goal. The main thing Russia needs is that not a single project in the Caucasus takes place without Gazprom.”

“Gazprom has already achieved very important agreements with Belarus and after a one-year transitional period everything will be on a new level with Ukraine,” said Giorkhelidze. “And if they get hold of our pipeline it would of course be the sign of a really solid position.”

The explosions may have hurt Gazprom’s ambitions to acquire the pipeline Giorkhelidze referred to – the main gas line to Georgia, currently owned by the Tbilisi government.

Talks on selling the pipeline to Gazprom took place at the end of last year, after Georgia was forced to accept a doubling of the price of Russian gas to 110 dollars per thousand cubic metres.

However, talks broke down following the intervention of the United States. Matthew Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state, and an old friend of President Saakashvili, told Georgian journalists in December, “Russia is a neighbour and Georgia’s biggest trading partner, but Georgia is already in a position of dependence in the supply of natural gas.”

Bryza urged Georgia to diversify its sources of gas supply.

Georgia is looking forward to receiving Azerbaijani gas from the Shah Deniz gas field in 2007, from a pipeline that is currently under construction and will run through Georgian territory to Turkey.

Georgian energy minister Nika Gilauri explained to IWPR that Georgia stands to receive 300 million cubic metres a year as payment for transit, and a further 500 million cubic metres at discounted prices. But Georgia’s annual demand for natural gas stands at two billion cubic metres in 2006.

Gilauri said this was the reason why, prior to the current crisis, his government had been considering selling the main pipeline from Russia as a way both to raise capital and to avoid having to maintain the line.

Saakashvili has suggested convening a forum in Tbilisi in spring 2006 with energy ministers from Ukraine and European countries, to look at alternative routes for energy supplies to Europe.

On January 26 the Georgian president accused Russia of being “suspiciously slow” in restoring the pipeline, work that he said should not last more than one day.

Gennady Abarovich is an editor with Black Sea Press in Tbilisi. Murat Gabarayev works for REGNUM news agency in the North Caucasus. Rita Karapetian in Yerevan contributed to this report.
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