Freezing Georgia Tussles with Russia Over Gas Prices

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is enduring its coldest winter in a decade, and it's also locked in a battle with Russia over natural gas prices. Georgia is refusing to pay higher prices set by Russia — and to make matters worse, an unexplained pipeline explosion in Russia cut off supplies to a shivering Georgia last week. Georgia president Mikhail Saakashvili cut short a trip to the World Economic Forum on Thursday to deal with a country in crisis.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Okay, energy, Russia and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The main pipeline delivering gas from Russia to Georgia mysteriously blew up last month in the middle of a bitter cold snap. Georgia blamed the Russians. Moscow angrily denied that. The pipeline has been mended, but Russian-Georgian relations have not.

NPR's Lawrence Sheets reports from Tbilisi.

LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:

Nicolai Jonasfeeby(ph) is a 78-year old retired engineer with rotting teeth and spectacles held together with scotch tape. He's been jostling for hours in subfreezing air to buy kerosene for a makeshift heater. Jonasfeeby is among those who believe President Mikhail Saakashvili's allegations that Russia is out to starve Georgia of energy.

Mr. NICOLAI JONASFEEBY (Retired Engineer): (Russian Spoken)

SHEETS: They blew up that pipeline on purpose so that Georgia would be left without fuel, Jonasfeeby says. Their politicians are blackmailers, and because of that people are suffering.

In reality, power cuts and natural gas shortages have been a regular feature of Georgian life for over a decade. Corruption and Georgia's decrepit infrastructure have been mostly to blame, but here in the capital, things had been improving for the last couple of years.

That's what irritates the Kremlin, President Saakashvili says. Saakashvili says Moscow is upset that under his two-year reign Georgia has turned even more sharply away from Russia and has stepped up its drive to join NATO. Saakashvili went on national TV to accuse the Russians of masterminding the pipeline attack.

President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Former Soviet Republic of Georgia): (Through a translator) These people will never see the day when Georgia is on its knees. Let them remember once and for all, we are a great nation, a greater nation than these little people think we are.

SHEETS: The Kremlin immediately denounced the 38-year old Georgian leader's allegations as hysterical rubbish, saying it's absurd to think that Russia would blow up its own pipeline on its own territory. It blames Islamist terrorists.

Many observers and in private, even some Georgian politicians believe ethnic Ascetian(ph) separatists who want independence from Georgia may have played a role.

American analyst Mark Semakowski is a visiting research fellow at the Georgian foundation for strategic and international studies.

Mr. MARK SEMAKOWSKI (Visiting Research Fellow, Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies): Whoever were the perpetrators of this attack saw to it that, I believe, Russian-Georgian relations will not only become more poisoned, but they can potentially create more instability.

SHEETS: Semakowski and others here point out that the gas crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Relations between Russia and Georgia suffer from multiple hostilities. This month, Georgia is expected to formally demand that Russian peacekeepers, who patrolled separatist parts of Georgia for over ten years, leave the country immediately, or Georgia says, the Russian troops will formally be considered occupation forces, a move Semakowski says would take Russian-Georgian relations to a new low.

Mr. SEMAKOWSKI: I believe they're headed to a low that we haven't seen before, at all, since the civil wars in Georgia in the 1990s. I think we are headed toward an impasse that could be intractable.

SHEETS: The broader danger is that Russia, which is long sympathized with Chechen and Abkhaz separatists in Georgia and their desire to move closer to Moscow, could be drawn into an open military conflict with Georgia, a staunch American ally with troops in Iraq. That's the scenario, which has many Georgians worried, and for every person here who blames Russia for the latest tensions, there seem to be just as many who believe that politicians in both countries are the only ones profiting from the bad blood.

44-year old Jarab Jarabishili(ph) says Georgians are tired of feuding with their much larger and richer neighbor to the north.

Mr. JARAB JARABISHILI (Citizen, Georgia): (Russian spoken)

SHEETS: Who can understand what's going on, Jarabishili asks. It's all politics. We need to have good relations.

The gas pipeline from Russia to Georgia has now been repaired, but it will be several more days before things get back to what passes for normal here in Georgia. It will be much longer before the dysfunctional relationship between Russia and Georgia is patched up.

Lawrence Sheets, NPR News, Tbilisi.

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