Georgia: Big Freeze Nightmare

Georgians shiver without light or heat, while Armenians escape worst of energy crisis.

Georgia: Big Freeze Nightmare

Georgians shiver without light or heat, while Armenians escape worst of energy crisis.

Tbilisi housewife Tea Metreveli summed up the situation for herself and her family in one word, “terrible”. With heavy snowfalls, no gas and now no electricity, city life had suddenly become a nightmare.

“I have two children aged six and 11 months,” said Metreveli. “While there was electricity we could at least keep warm with the help of reflector heaters. But we haven’t had electricity for 24 hours.

“My husband left this morning to look for kerosene and went round almost the whole city. He just called and he was happy because he’s found some on the outskirts. But he’s been queuing for four hours. I dressed the children in everything warm we had, with two coats each.”

On January 22, a series of explosions along two gas pipelines in North Ossetia and one electricity line in Karachai-Cherkessia plunged Georgia into a pre-modern world all of a sudden during some of the coldest winter weather anyone can remember.

The situation got dramatically worse on the night of January 25-26. A heavy storm brought down power lines from Georgia’s largest power station on the River Inguri and also crippled the Tbilisi power station. Parts of western Georgia were damaged by the storm and much of the country was blacked out.

As a result of the breakdown in Russian energy supplies and interruptions to Georgia’s domestic provision, large parts of Tbilisi lost both electricity and gas as temperatures sank to minus 12 degrees centigrade. With snow and ice freezing pipes, many were without water as well.

Some residents dragged out of their cellars the wood-burning stoves that they had used to heat their houses during the electricity blackouts of five or six years ago. Others relied on bottled liquid gas and kerosene but supplies quickly dwindled as tens of thousands of Tbilisi residents went in search of heating fuel and prices shot up. Vehicles selling liquefied gas attracted queues stretching 500 metres in the snow. People tramped the streets wearing two overcoats, one on top of the other.

One elderly woman, who had already stood for several hours in the cold in a queue for kerosene, had knitted woollen stockings on top of her hat and around her neck. She did not want to talk and burst into tears.

“We don’t have kerosene, but even if we did, we couldn’t get it,” said grandmother and retired engineer Nato Mikiashvili. “The price has doubled and we simply can’t afford it. My grandson is three and we dressed him in everything we could but he still’s whining because it’s cold.

“We don’t have water because we live in the upper part of the town where there should be pumps to make the water work. We don’t have any light. The one thing we do have is a liquid gas bottle, but we are conserving it. We just use it to cook something quickly. If it ends it will be hard to fill up because of the queues and the big shortages.”

Heavy snowfalls in Tbilisi virtually shut down public transport. The crush in the metro was so intense that there are now restrictions on people using the system. Most schools are closed.

At an emergency briefing on January 26, Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said, “Georgia is basically today under an energy blockade. On Sunday within a few minutes Georgia lost 40 per cent of its energy supplies and since then the energy system has been working on an emergency regime.”

Armenia, which suffered acute energy shortages in the 1990s, appeared better equipped for a crisis this time. Although all supplies of Russian gas - which it receives via Georgia - were cut off, almost all Armenians were supplied with emergency reserves.

But Shushan Sardarian of the gas company ArmRosgazprom said if shipments were not restored by January 25, then the company would start a rationing schedule - though it would hit factories before it affected ordinary people.

Almost half of vehicles and the majority of minibuses in Yerevan use gas and the shortages threatened to hit public transport, already suffering from heavy snowfalls.

“If there is no gas, I can’t drive out,” said Volodya, a minibus driver, predicting that transport prices and the cost of other goods would shoot up.

Gas officials said that when the gas lines are repaired, it will take two days for supplies to reach Armenia.

Margarita Akhvlediani is IWPR’s Regional Director and Editor in Tbilisi. Rita Karapetian works for Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan.
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