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Russia: Western Press Accuses Moscow Of Using Energy As Cudgel

As cross-border power cuts spread across the CIS, concerns are rising about political motives, as well as debts. The Western press has become increasingly quick to accuse Russia of using its energy dominance to press its agenda on neighboring countries. The incidents seem likely to harm Moscow's interests in the long run.

Boston, 5 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- International power cuts among CIS countries this winter are drawing attention to the uses of energy as strategic and political tools.

In the past few days, disputes or disruptions of cross-border energy supplies have ensnared a long list of countries, including Russia, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. In recent weeks, Ukraine and Azerbaijan have faced similar threats. Most recently, a cutoff in Russian gas supplies to Georgia on January 1 prompted an outcry over political motivations in the international press after residents in Tbilisi were left in the cold.

The London-based Financial Times stated bluntly that Russia's shutdown was "the latest indication of its readiness to use its vast oil and gas reserves as leverage in foreign affairs, particularly with former members of the Soviet bloc."

The French news service Agence France Presse interpreted the action similarly, saying, "Russia has repeatedly exploited its monopoly of gas supply to various former Soviet republics as leverage in regional disputes."

The gas was restored to the power plant in Tbilisi on Thursday, following a personal plea from President Eduard Shevardnadze to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. But after a series of such stoppages in the past year, the charges of political manipulation still hang in the air.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Russia, like an angry landlord, is showing its power over weaker countries by turning off the lights. Since such allegations are always difficult to prove, many news outlets have given up trying and instead state their assumptions as fact.

In this case, the Financial Times appears to have found some evidence for its conclusion. The paper reports that Inertgazstroi, the independent Russian gas trader that was supplying Georgia, was told by the Russian Economy Ministry that it would be shut off unless it halted deliveries. Although Georgia is said to owe Russia some $179 million, the January gas allotment was reportedly paid for.

Now that service has been restored, Georgian officials have been trying to downplay the political angle, citing an unspecified "problem in the Russian gas exporters' network." But even the resumption has raised political questions, because the source of Georgia's new gas is not Inertgazstroi, but the gas trader Itera, despite reports that Georgia already owes Itera $32 million.

Several factors appear to be driving the cross-border disputes over energy in the CIS. Many countries have never settled their mutual debts, allowing relatively small arrears to languish for years. Some oil-rich nations like Kazakhstan, with vast spaces and poor internal pipeline networks, rely on neighbors for energy in border regions. As a result, the country was recently forced to pay a steep 42 percent increase for gas from Uzbekistan to supply southern Kazakhstan.

Disruptions have also become common at this time of the year because of winter demand and the need for new contracts at the start of 2001. Those problems have collided with higher world energy prices, which are having a ripple effect on the prices that CIS countries charge one another. On 1 January, Turkmenistan cut its gas supplies to Russia after Moscow refused to pay the equivalent of a 5 percent price increase.

But in the case of Russia and Georgia, there are so many issues on the bilateral agenda that it is hard to see any cutoff as a simple affair. A partial list of questions to be settled includes Russian military bases, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, visas, the border with Chechnya, mutual debts and Georgia's support for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.

Russia may be able to force flexibility on any one of these issues, or indeed, the whole agenda with a timely turn of the energy tap. Few things seem to make a populace so dissatisfied with its government as the loss of basic services like heat and light. In a critical sense, electrical power is political power.

That principle could hardly have been lost on Russia when it halted gas deliveries to Azerbaijan in November, citing an obscure customs rule. The cutoff came within days of a disputed parliamentary election, resulting in nationwide demonstrations over both the poll and the power shortage.

Azerbaijan has since been working toward a new and more cooperative relationship with Russia, which is set to culminate in a visit by President Vladimir Putin next week. The alternative to cooperation may already have been demonstrated by the gas stoppage.

But if these energy troubles do prove to be tactics, they could cause Moscow to pay an even higher price. If the press in the European Union continues to connect the cutoffs with political pressure, the EU could grow wary of increasing its dependence on Russian gas. While countries like Georgia may be susceptible to power interruptions, Russia's reputation as a reliable supplier may soon become equally vulnerable in the West.