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Caucasus: Azerbaijan, Georgia Turn To Russia For Energy Help

Public demonstrations against power shortages in Georgia and Azerbaijan have posed political problems for the governments of both countries in the last week. Both have turned to Russia for help, but a difficult winter may lie ahead.

Boston, 22 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Unrest over energy shortages has increased in two Caucasus countries that rely on Russia for fuel, while concern is rising in other countries as cold weather sets in.

Last week, both Georgia and Azerbaijan witnessed violent protests over the inability of their governments to provide citizens with power for heat and lights.

In the Georgian capital Tbilisi, demonstrators erected barricades and burned tires in the streets, prompting President Eduard Shevardnadze to warn that the situation could "lead to mass disorder and even civil war."

Although the country has already been subject to winter power outages for several years, officials have only been able to promise a partial improvement from a new deal to buy electricity from Russia. Estimates of how much electric service will be provided have varied from six to 16 or 17 hours a day.

Georgian officials cited corruption for some of the country's power problems after a temporary blackout last week. Russia has pledged to help with more gas, while Azerbaijan has promised to send diesel fuel. But Georgia is already in debt for energy supplies and in need of more funds to repair its facilities.

In Azerbaijan, the situation is also tense. In the northwestern city of Sheki, at least 25 people were detained after weekend demonstrations over cuts in heat and power. According to ANS television news, 15 policeman were injured and cars were set on fire.

In Nardaran, near Baku, several hundred residents also protested energy shortages Monday and tried to take over a local administration building, according to a police official quoted by Agence France Presse. The disturbances appear to have political overtones. Members of the opposition Musavat party were detained in Sheki, while demonstrators denounced the government and recent parliamentary elections, which were marred by charges of manipulation and fraud. An estimated 15,000 opposition supporters also rallied Sunday in Baku, the Reuters news agency said.

The link between energy and politics could be perilous for both governments. Because the power companies in both countries are state-owned, the governments are open to blame. The inability to provide basic necessities like heat is also likely to be seen as a failure of leadership in nations that have promised their citizens a share of Caspian oil wealth.

Georgia has few natural resources other than its geographical position for Caspian transit routes. Russia has also recently promised to increase electricity exports through Georgia to Turkey, which is suffering energy shortages of its own. Georgia's emergency may make it harder for Turkey to receive additional Russian power.

But in Azerbaijan, the situation could be even more damaging. Although the country is exporting Caspian oil under contract with foreign partners, it has left itself little to run its own power plants. After it was forced to ration electricity last winter, the government took steps this year to avoid repeating the experience.

Azerbaijan's solution was to buy Russian gas for its power plants, allowing Baku to export more of its oil. Moscow pressed the deal, insisting that Azerbaijan had failed to pump enough oil through a Russian pipeline to meet the terms of a 1996 contract. But last week, Russia suddenly halted its gas supplies, saying that the country's State Customs Committee had not approved the transit over Russian territory. Before the cutoff, Azerbaijan had received only 10 million cubic meters of gas. It had been expecting at least 300 million cubic meters by the end of this year.

It is unclear why the bureaucratic hurdle suddenly emerged in a deal that had been discussed, negotiated and planned for months. Gas deliveries were originally scheduled to start on October 1, but they were delayed for a month by other unexplained "organizational" problems, Azerbaijani officials said. The problems have come at a time when Baku is said to be close to an agreement with Moscow on a common position for dividing the Caspian Sea.

Whatever Russia's reasons may be, the Azerbaijani government has been feeling the pressure from its citizens. With a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin expected shortly, the problem of gas deliveries could be quickly resolved. But for countries that are depending on Russia during a time of energy shortages, the risks of reliance may start to look high.