Plans for joint Georgian-Russian management of the Enguri hydropower station have touched off a fresh round of political mudslinging in Georgia over the government's policy toward breakaway Abkhazia.
The Soviet-era station, slung between Georgian territory and the breakaway region of Abkhazia, is arguably one of the few remaining examples of active Georgian-Abkhaz cooperation. Five of the station's generators stand on Abkhaz territory; the dam is located within Georgia. Sixty percent of the station's annual electricity output of 4.5 billion kilowatts per hour goes to Georgia; the remaining 40 percent to Abkhazia.
Faced with growing electricity demands within Abkhazia, Chernomorenergo (Black Sea Energy), a government-run power company formerly headed by de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, has begun working with Russian energy giant Inter RAO to upgrade Abkhazia's electricity system, including its part of the Enguri power station, Abkhaz media sources report.
Under the terms of a recent memorandum signed by Georgian Energy Minister Aleko Khetaguri, and Inter RAO General Director Yevgeny Dod, Inter RAO and the Georgian government will develop a ten-year program for use of the Enguri power station.
Inter RAO reportedly has agreed to pay some 15 million laris (roughly $9 million) for Enguri electricity consumed by Abkhazia and to purchase an additional 300 kilowatts/hour per year for at least 25 million lari (roughly $15 million) for export to Turkey via Georgia. A supervisory council staffed equally by Georgians and Russians would manage the Enguri station.
A contract with Inter RAO should be signed within two months, according to the Georgian government, but both sides have indicated that the negotiation period could be prolonged.
"[I]f the Russian side changes the already agreed provisions of the memorandum, the Georgian side will not sign the contract," Energy Minister Khetaguri told EurasiaNet.
Inter RAO has declined to disclose further details. "The deal is still under negotiation and we cannot add anything to our statement posted on the website," company spokesperson Boris Zverev said.
Georgian opposition parties have charged that the deal has effectively stripped Georgia of its stake in the Enguri station.
Former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabishvili, head of the party Georgia's Way, has termed the deal "one of this government's . . . biggest crimes." The Christian Democrats, a center-right group, charges that the deal indirectly acknowledges Abkhazia as part of the Russian Federation since Inter RAO will hold responsibility for Abkhazia's allegedly unpaid electricity bills.
Political scientist Soso Tsintsadze, however, sees the outcry over the memorandum, a non-binding document, as "not serious."
"We cannot say anything serious until we see the terms of the contract, which has not yet been concluded. We can only say what's what once it has been published," Tsintsadze said.
Despite the political uproar, Inter RAO is not new to Georgia. The company, which specializes in electricity exports and imports, already controls 75 percent of Tbilisi's electricity distribution network, manages two Georgian hydropower stations and owns thermal power station MtkvariEnergetika outright.
Energy Minister Khetaguri has countered opposition criticism with the argument that Inter RAO's participation is the best way to make sure Enguri continues to function.
"The opposition doubts the guarantees that Inter RAO proposes, but what guarantees did we have before? Nothing," he told journalists on January 13. Georgia can either sign a contract with Inter RAO "guaranteeing the safe and smooth operation of Enguri" or leave the station "vulnerable to possible incidents" that could result in its total breakdown, he alleged.
"This is a political precedent," Khetaguri added. "Hence, the promise of the Kremlin-owned company is the same as guarantees from the Kremlin itself."
The Russian state-run nuclear energy company Rosatom and Energoatom Concern, which runs Russia's nuclear power plants, hold just over 57 percent of Inter RAO's shares.
Economic Development Minister Lasha Zhvania has gone even further, arguing on January 13 that the memorandum means that Inter RAO "recognizes Georgia's jurisdiction over the Enguri HPP [Hydro Power Plant], as well as the need for getting a license and permission for economic activities in Abkhazia from Tbilisi, and not from the separatist authorities [of Abkhazia]."
Some Georgian analysts see that interpretation as wishful thinking. "That's impossible. Such recognition contravenes Russia's earlier statement acknowledging the sovereignty of Abkhazia," argued energy expert Anzor Chitanava, who worked on the power station during the Soviet era.
Nonetheless, like many Georgians, Chitanava sees the deal as "a diplomatic feint" designed to push Georgians and Abkhaz further apart.
The Abkhaz differ. Inter RAO's participation is part of a growing presence of Russian companies that the Sokhumi government views as critical to Abkhazia's recovery from years of economic blockade and its 1992-1993 war with Georgia.
Nino Patsuria is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.