Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia's Winter of Discontent

Eduard Shevardnadze hopes that an upsurge in the electricity supply on the eve of the presidential elections will blur bitter memories of winter deficits.
By Sozar Subeliani

Exasperated by the strict rationing of electricity supplies, the residents of a Kutaisi apartment block devised an ingenious scheme for outwitting the authorities.


They got hold of a coffin lid and propped it up outside the door of one apartment, indicating that the family was celebrating a wake inside. As a mark of respect, the power was switched on. The next day, the coffin lid appeared outside a different apartment. Again, the energy board made an exception and granted the building a day's electricity.


So it went on until the authorities got wise to the scam and confiscated the coffin lid. "They've taken our generator away," moaned the crestfallen residents to one another.


Georgia's ever-fluctuating power supply has become the single biggest bugbear in people's daily lives. Blamed on antiquated machinery, widespread corruption and epic non-payment of bills, the shortages have forced the government to introduce a rationing policy. During the winter, electricity is provided twice a day, for two hours in the morning and four hours at night.


It is a marked improvement on the situation which existed four years ago. Between 1992 and 1996, the power grid was prone to shut down at any time, without warning. People riding the Tbilisi Metro were often forced to leave the carriages and stumble back through the tunnels with no light or ventilation. On the railways, it sometimes took trains several days to cover a distance of a few hundred kilometres.


Today the problems are so familiar that Georgians temper their frustration with grim irony. Last week, one radio station featured a mock speech by Eduard Shevardnadze promising 16 hours of electricity a day if he were re-elected president. "It's the year 2406," intoned the presenter. "The beginning of the 25th century."


One popular wisecrack asks, "What is the happiest way to die?" Answer: "From an electric shock whilst taking a shower. That means you've got water, electricity and an electric water heater as well."


But, joking apart, the power cuts pose very real dangers to the population at large. In hospitals, the situation is so uncertain that patients undergoing an operation are asked to bring along their own generators in case electrical equipment shuts down unexpectedly.


Most householders keep kerosene-burning heaters in their homes - a practice which is in itself a health hazard. And power cuts often herald water cuts as municipal water pumps require electricity to function.


As a result, the stairwells of high-rise buildings which litter the Tbilisi suburbs are generally bustling with people carrying buckets of water and jerry-cans of kerosene. The lifts are grounded for most of the day.


David Zautashvili lives on the 13th floor and works on the 11th floor. "I always try to leave home about 40 minutes before the power is set to go off," he says. "This way I can use the lift to go down and arrive at work in time to take the lift up.


"Once I'm there, life is good: we have a generator so I can watch TV, shave, make myself a coffee and feel like a normal human being. In the evening, before I leave the office, I call home first to find out if the electricity is on. Still, I've been stuck in the lift three times already this winter."


Almost every apartment dweller in Tbilisi has had the experience of being confined in a dark lift, waiting for the electricity to be restored or for a passer-by to come to their rescue.


The situation on the streets is doubly hazardous. When the streetlights go out, the number of accidents soars - a situation exacerbated by the fact that the favourite colour in Georgia is black and drivers often fail to see pedestrians crossing the road.


During the blackouts, the most common crime is the theft of petrol from parked cars causing constant frustration for motorists. Burglars also take ready advantage of the opportunities offered by immobilised security devices.


Occasionally, residents take to the streets to protest against the power cuts, blocking major thoroughfares in a bid to draw attention to their cause. Most have given up hope of securing a 24-hour electricity supply but demand that the government stick to the established schedule.


Usually, power is temporarily restored to the neighbourhood concerned and the protestors hurry home to take advantage of their fleeting victory.


The psychological effects of the power cuts are widely reported. Experts say the situation has led to a sharp rise in depression and nervous disorders. People sit in the dark for hours, waiting for light to return, then hurl themselves into a frenzy of activity to capitalise on the few hours' grace.


Families living near defence facilities or government buildings can consider themselves lucky. For a small fee, local administrators let them hook up to their dedicated power lines. Occasionally, the authorities raid these neighbourhoods and cut the illegal connections, but they are usually up and running again by the following day.


The government blames the power crisis on the unwillingness of most Georgians to pay for electricity. The American company AES Silk Road Holding, which now owns Telasi, Tbilisi's power distribution company, is struggling to break the deadlock and hopes to raise the collection rate from 40 per cent to 90 per cent by December 2001.


Energy bosses say, that without the proper income, they are unable to invest in ageing power stations which date from the 1950s and 1960s. Energy minister David Mirtskhulava estimates that necessary repairs would cost around $1 billion - double the predicted revenues for the whole of 2000.


Mirtskhulava believes privatisation is the only realistic solution and the buy-out of Telasi was finally approved in January last year. It is a move fiercely opposed by the trade unions who say they would rather see the energy sector plundered by corrupt officials than fall into foreign hands.


The rape of the power industry by the so-called "energy godfathers" has already entered into Georgia's popular folklore. The population has watched in exasperation as energy bosses with official salaries of less than $1,000 a year build themselves luxurious mansions in prime locations outside Tbilisi.


But, as ever, the winter of despair brings a spring of hope. Eduard Shevardnadze's campaign for the Georgian presidency this week has heralded a temporary 24-hour electricity supply. Meanwhile, spring rains will swell the rivers which power the hydro-electric stations. The cost of hydro-electric energy is around 7 per cent of the cost of electricity produced by solid-fuel stations.


And, in coming months, public protest is likely to subside - at least until the autumn frosts begin to bite.


Sozar Subeliani is the editor of Georgia's Kavkasioni newspaper. Giorgi Topouria is IWPR's project director in Tbilisi