Analysis: Georgia faces a winter of blackouts

By JOHN C.K. DALY, UPI International Correspondent   |   Dec. 19, 2008 at 6:36 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 (UPI) -- The reverberations of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's rash military thrust into South Ossetia over the summer continue to resonate throughout the Caucasus, NATO and Caspian energy exports. Now Saakashvili is advising his populace that the country's energy network is prepared for possible winter "sabotage" by unnamed miscreants. Many Georgians doubtless will see the dark hand of the Kremlin behind their president's assertions.

Tbilisi's ill-advised military operation into South Ossetia on the evening of Aug. 7 provoked a five-day conflict with Russia that ended in the complete rout of Georgian forces from the disaffected region, with Russian military forces briefly moving into Georgia proper before withdrawing and subsequently establishing "buffer zones" around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Further humiliating Tbilisi, on Aug. 26 the Russian Federation recognized the independence of the two breakaway regions, followed by Nicaragua nine days later.

The military clash had international repercussions far beyond the Caucasus because of two issues -- Georgia's push to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, strongly supported by the Bush administration, and the country's role as a key transit corridor for Azeri oil exports via the 1,092-mile, $3.6 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

The BTC, which opened in May 2006, has a potential 1 million-barrel-per-day throughput capacity; before the conflict the line was transiting approximately 800,000 bpd. On Aug. 5 an explosion of undetermined origin occurred on a BTC segment at Turkey's Yurtbasi village, forcing the closure of Valves 29 and 31 as officials waited for the oil contained in the 4-mile segment to burn out. BTC operator BP declared force majeure. Azerbaijan's other export options through Georgia via the Baku-Supsa line and Kulevi oil terminal also were shut down, forcing Baku to use the old Baku-Novorossiisk Russian monopoly Transneft pipeline, which BTC had been constructed to circumvent and, in a move that surprised many specialists, sent 200,000 tons of oil eastward to Iran before a cease-fire was announced on Aug. 12.

When BTC resumed operations 20 days after the explosion, Azerbaijan had lost shipping of approximately 17 million barrels of crude, and the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that Azerbaijan's final cost for the lost shipments was more than $1 billion. The clash highlighted the vulnerability of funding any new energy transit projects through Georgia, even before the recent global recession caused a freefall in energy prices.

The issue of Georgian entry into NATO will be a further irritant in Georgian-Russian relations as well. While member nations at NATO's summit in Bucharest, Romania, April 2-4 declined to offer either Georgia or Ukraine a Membership Action Plan, the summit nonetheless concluded by issuing a final declaration whose Article 23 began, "NATO welcomes Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO." Such pronouncements will continue to unsettle Moscow.

In Georgia's internal energy market, on Sept. 25 the Georgian Electric System Commercial Operator's public relations department head, Anya Bregvadze, announced that Georgia had ceased importing Russian electricity via the Salkhin high-tension power line 220, which runs through Abkhazia, noting that Georgia has often insisted it does not need electricity imports from Russia, as two years ago Georgia's United Electricity Distribution Co. halted imports of Russian electricity by diversifying to Azeri and Turkish power imports and that, as Abkhazia was no longer under Tbilisi's control, imports through the Salkhin line would end.

While Russia in the past has repeatedly played hardball with former Soviet republics over energy import pricing issues, Saakashvili's assertions, made during a recent Rustavi-2 Television live broadcast of a meeting with Energy Minister Alexander Khetaguri, Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili and other top officials, may be a public relations "pre-emptive strike" attempt to prepare the nation for possible brownouts and blackouts by implying that "sabotage" by unnamed elements, rather than government policy decisions, are responsible.

Saakashvili observed, "It's getting cold in Georgia's regions now, and the main question facing the Georgian public, facing each of us, is whether we will manage to ensure that people are provided with electricity, heat and gas without interruption in the postwar period, in conditions of world economic crisis and in conditions where there is a threat of sabotage and to ensure that it is not dark and cold in Georgia." Seeking to reassure the populace, Khetaguri chimed in that Georgia had an "untouched reserve" of fuel oil that could be used in emergency to offset any outages caused by natural disasters or sabotage and provide heat to even the country's most isolated regions.

Saakashvili also addressed the issue of ongoing Georgian natural gas imports from Russia, but downplayed the issue, saying, "This year the Georgian energy sector has a minimum dependence on Russian gas supplies, it is just 10 percent that we are getting from the amount of gas transported (further on) to Armenia. I do not think that Russia will leave Armenia without gas."

The past year has not been kind to Saakashvili. A year ago 50,000 demonstrators appeared on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi in front of Parliament, demanding Saakashvili's resignation; he responded by sending in riot police with batons, using tear gas and water cannons and declaring martial law. If Georgia's power supplies face interruptions this winter, then Tbilisi may yet see hordes of cold demonstrators pour into the capital's darkened streets seeking answers to the question "why." If it does happen, then Georgia's next revolution may not be quite so "rosy" as the one four years ago that brought Saakashvili to power.

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