It's official. Georgia and Gazprom are going out. Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, the former soccer star/pin-up staple, keeps getting spotted meeting Gazprom officials and he is running out of excuses for an entanglement that, some claim, threatens to upset the region's energy status quo, and possibly, its geopolitical layout.
Georgians mostly learn via foreign media about Kaladze’s trysts with the Russian gas monopolist in Milan, Brussels or Geneva. Each time the news breaks, the minister steps forth with claims that it was just some routine business meeting. Nothing to worry about.
But his line of reasoning has become sharply contradictory, stoking fears that Georgia is being seduced back into a dependency on Russian energy, which, in turn, critics say, could hamstring Georgia’s Western integration plans.
In his latest clarification, Kaladze said that his talks with Gazprom are about revising the terms for the transit of Russian gas through Georgia to Armenia. Instead of taking 10 percent of the gas (some 200 million cubic meters) as a transit fee, Tbilisi wants to get paid in cash, Kaladze said on January 11. The deal, if reached, will last for a year, the minister said, which, to his mind, means that the doomsday scenarios “painted by the so-called experts are nothing but delirious and wrong."
Earlier on, though, Kaladze had offered a diametrically different explanation for his tête-à-têtes with Gazprom, saying that Georgia actually wants to get more Russian gas to meet local, especially corporate, demand for fuel. Still before, Kaladze said that the sessions were about routine seasonal adjustments in the pipeline-infrastructure.
Kaladze’s many explanations also include a need to diversify away from over-dependence on neighboring Azerbaijan for gas supplies -- a claim that has led to some acrimonious commentary from its longtime energy steady.
Or maybe the coquetry with Gazprom is all about reversing the flow of a Gazprom-operated pipeline in Armenia to import gas from Iran? That’s what Iranian officials say. And there was a time when Kaladze, too, liked the idea.
But, then again, his ministry ardently denied making any specific plans with Iran, even though Iranian gas export officials specified the volumes (between 8 to 15 million cubic meters annually) that Tbilisi supposedly wanted to buy from Tehran.
Whether Georgia starts getting more gas from Russia or Iran, it will rely on Gazprom-operated transit infrastructure. Such an outcome has put many Georgians on alert, as Gazprom is interpreted as the Russian for foreign- policy pressure. Concerns are growing that Moscow could end up in a position where it could hinder Georgia’s much-cherished plans for Euro-Atlantic integration.
Some within Georgia's political opposition link this prospect to billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, seen as Georgia's real ruler, who, they allege, still holds shares in the Russian energy giant. The claim could not be immediately verified.
Kaladze, meanwhile, remains defiant about the drama over his rendez-vous. “I am sorry that the meetings with Gazprom cannot be carried live on TV,” he sniped on January 12.
He did meet, though, with a group of those "delirious" energy and political wonks to offer some details about the talks. Or perhaps it was to come up with yet another, brand new explanation.