Discussion of the weather these days in Georgia is anything but small talk. And perhaps no one is more anxious as they scan the skies for signs of a chill than President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose fortunes hang in the balance as political opponents weigh in on his role in Georgia's conflict with Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Scenes of shivering Georgians could prove a powerful weapon against Saakashvili, who already faces a public backlash over his decision-making at the outbreak of fighting, and whom Russian officials have already labeled a "political corpse."
After a rout at the hands of Russian troops and the accompanying damage to Georgia's integrity and infrastructure, the tiny Caucasus state now faces risks associated with continued dependence on Moscow's energy whims and diplomatic might.
Tbilisi has sought to change that situation by intensifying cooperation with energy-rich neighbor Azerbaijan, but opinions differ over how far they've come.
"During winter, the amount of gas imported from Azerbaijan is not sufficient for Georgia, and it is mainly during those months that Russian gas is used in addition," Liana Jervalidze, an expert on energy and transport route-related issues, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "At least this was the case last winter."
Georgia got about 60 percent of its imported natural gas from Russia last year, while the other 40 percent came from Azerbaijan, Jervalidze said.Weaning Process
Political allies appear eager to assuage concerns and emphasize greater independence from Russian gas supplies.
"We don't depend on Russia in terms of gas," Giorgi Meladze, chairman of the parliamentary Economy and Economic Policy Committee, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "All necessary contracts have been concluded with Azerbaijan.... So there will be no problems."
Alikhan Malikov, chairman of the state-owned company responsible for exporting gas to Georgia, Azerigas, said he anticipated no problems in delivering pledged exports to Georgia. But he also stressed that his company's responsibilities are restricted to delivering gas.
"The contract was signed by the [Azerbaijani] State Oil Company [SOCAR], and Azerigas is just a transporter," Malikov said.
Tbilisi and Baku also have an agreement that grants the Georgian side 5 percent of all gas transported via its territory and the right to another 5 percent at a reduced price, Azerbaijani political analyst Rasim Musabekov noted. Georgia pays the market price for the remainder of its Azerbaijani gas.
But Russian gas giant Gazprom
recently made a bid to derail that bilateral arrangement, offering to buy any gas that Azerbaijan is willing to sell -- all of it, if Baku so chooses.
A number of industry observers interviewed by RFE/RL dismissed the worst fears, including the possibility that Russia might attempt to pressure Baku into reducing shipments to Georgia -- or even halting them altogether.
Sabit Bagirov, a former head of SOCAR, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that he does not think Russia will interfere with Azerbaijani energy exports to Georgia. Moscow "has already gotten used to the fact that Azerbaijan is supplying gas to Georgia," Bagirov said.
Musabekov agreed, noting that export routes for Azerbaijani oil and natural gas bound for Europe pass through Georgia, so cutting off Tbilisi would mean cutting off many other customers.
But Musabekov cautioned Tbilisi against leaving itself reliant on the goodwill of Azerbaijan, particularly with respect to pricing. "Russia understands that Azerbaijan is transporting its gas and oil via Georgia and, in this case, it is impossible to stop selling gas to Georgia," Musabekov said. "It is another story that Georgia wants an excessive discount under what they call 'regional prices,' and Azerbaijan should not sacrifice its own interests in this case."All Is Well
Former SOCAR chief Bagirov said talks "about the future" might be under way between the Azerbaijanis and Gazprom, but he downplayed the Russian side's chances of securing a deal anytime soon.
Georgian lawmaker Meladze said he was confident that existing contracts will be honored and that Georgia will not face an energy crisis in the short term. "All the treaties that regulate the gas and electricity supply have been concluded," Meladze said. "So there will be no problems in the winter, in terms of electricity or gas."
He added that there were currently no plans to revisit gas-pricing schemes.
Meladze added that Georgia's power stations and other means of generating electricity escaped damage during the fighting with Russia, and should continue to function reliably.
Even if some power plants encounter problems, he said, "thermal power stations will be ready to begin operating."
"Maximum care has been taken to devise such schemes as to allow us to avoid dependence on Russia" for energy, Meladze said.
But analyst Jervalidze noted that Georgia's 1.75 billion cubic meters (bcm) gas market is "semi-deregulated," allowing the largest industrial users to buy gas directly -- whether from Russia or Azerbaijan.
There are unconfirmed reports that the Georgian side has requested additional gas from Azerbaijan to get the country through the winter. The same sources indicate that Azerbaijanis are resisting such a commitment.
Georgians were used to energy rationing in the 1990s and at the start of this decade.
The situation has improved significantly since Saakashvili became president in 2003. But memories are still relatively fresh in Georgians' minds of the power outages and brownouts before the Rose Revolution, and that has some people wondering whether Moscow might try to use its influence to leave the country cold and dark this winter. Khadija Ismayilova of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, RFE/RL's Georgian Service Director David Kakabadze, and Salome Asatiani and Kakha Mchedlidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report