By Astghik Bedevian
Unusually heavy snowfalls coupled with freezing weather have blocked highways across Armenia and disrupted traffic in Yerevan, complicating government efforts to prevent a serious energy crisis following a cut-off in Russian gas supplies.
Snow has fallen on the country in record amounts for almost a week, piling up to between 80 and 110 centimeters in some of its mountainous regions. It stood at 55 centimeters in the Armenian capital, according to the national meteorological service. “This is above the height of snow registered in Yerevan in the past 100 years,” its director, Albert Torosian, told RFE/RL on Thursday.
City authorities have faced a barrage of media criticism for their failure to effectively deal with the emergency. Many streets in Yerevan remain covered in snow and few snow ploughs have been seen at work so far. The municipality has urged motorists to avoid driving during night hours. There are also regular reports of snow blocking mountain passes and other sections of major roads outside the capital.
The weather conditions also forced delays and cancellations of many flights to and from Armenia. Workers cleaning the runaway of Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport had trouble keeping pace with the practically nonstop snowfalls this week.
The snowfalls eased considerably on Thursday, but meteorologists said that they will continue and even intensify in the next few days. They also forecast a further drop in air temperatures which have been below the average for most of January. According to Torosian, they will fall to minus 13 degrees Celsius in Yerevan and as low as minus 20-25 degrees in other regions this weekend.
The freezing weather could have hardly come at a worse time. Armenia and neighboring Georgia have been facing their worst energy crises in years since last Sunday’s explosions in southern Russia that knocked out the pipeline shipping natural gas to the two South Caucasus nations.
The Armenian gas operator, ARG, has since been using its underground emergency reserves to keep up supplies to the population and thermal power stations that meet about 40 percent of the country’s electricity needs. ARG spokeswoman Shushan Sardarian said at the current rate of gas consumption they will suffice until next Sunday. Gas rationing would allow Armenia to last for three more days, she said.
It is still not clear how long repair work on the destroyed section of the pipeline located in the Russian republic of North Ossetia will take. Itar-Tass news agency quoted the head of the local government, Alexander Merkulov, saying that it will likely be complete on Friday. But the Russian Gazprom monopoly said on Thursday that its experts have found more damage to the pipeline that will complicate its restoration.
The Russian prosecutor's office had said on Wednesday that the two explosions were a terrorist attack carried out by Islamist militants operating across the Russian North Caucasus. However, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili alleges that Moscow itself organized the sabotage to punish his pro-Western administration. Russian officials have strongly denied the charges.
Meanwhile, the situation in Georgia again deteriorated on Thursday following an overnight disruption of a high-voltage power transmission line which local authorities blamed on high winds and bad weather. Much of the country was reportedly left without electricity as a result. The crisis forced Saakashvili to cut short his participation in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and return to Tbilisi.