By Karine Kalantarian
Armenia’s natural gas distributor appeared on Friday unconvinced by Russian officials’ latest pledge to repair a key pipeline running to the region on Saturday, saying that it may still have to introduce gas rationing.
The Interfax news agency quoted Vasily Zinovyev, director of gas monopoly Gazprom's subsidiary in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, as saying that repair work on a local section of the pipeline destroyed by two weekend explosions is “entering the final stage.” “We plan to resume gas deliveries on Saturday,” he said.
Zinovyev cautioned at the same time that consumers in Armenia and Georgia will not feel the benefit for some time. But he would not say just when the two South Caucasus will be able to end their gas shortages that are resulting into a serious energy crisis.
The spokeswoman for the Russian-Armenian joint venture ArmRosGazprom (ARG), which runs Armenia’s gas infrastructure, indicated that the Russia supplies are not certain to resume on Saturday. “According to our information, everything is being done at the site of the accident to promptly restore gas deliveries,” Shushan Sardarian told RFE/RL. “The repairs should be complete and gas supplies should resume on January 27. But we will refrain from announcing any concrete dates for the moment.”
Russian officials initially promised to bring the pipeline back into service on Tuesday. But throughout this week they reported additional problems such as bad weather hampering the repair efforts.
Armenian gas consumers have not yet been affected by the crisis, with ARG tapping its underground emergency reserves that totaled 80 cubic meters when the crisis broke out. Sardarian said earlier that the reserves are enough to keep the country afloat only until next Wednesday.
Sardarian said on Friday that ARG has yet to decide whether to limit supplies to business consumers such as factories and liquefied gas filling stations. “It depends on the situation on the ground,” she said, underscoring the persisting uncertainty. “If repair work is completed and gas supplies resume by the promised date, there will hopefully be no [supply] limitations. If the situation changes, we will have to look at a timetable for limitations.”
The situation remains far more severe in Georgia which ceased receive Russian gas on Wednesday from a reserve supply line passing through Azerbaijan. Many parts of the country have been left without gas and electricity. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has accused Russia of deliberately blowing up the pipeline to punish the pro-Western regime in Tbilisi, a charge strongly denied by Moscow.
Saakashvili vowed late Thursday that his country will not be forced into submission to its former Soviet master despite the latest hardship. "I want to declare that today, when most of Georgia is in the dark, when our homes are not heated, that Georgia will never be
brought to its knees,” he said, according to AFP. “The Georgian people have survived harder times and Georgia will again surprise Russia and the whole world."
Armenia’s leaders have so far been silent on the pipeline sabotage and its potentially serious consequences, leaving it to ARG to brief the local media and population at large on the situation. They also seem resigned to the impending steep rise in the price of gas purchased from Gazprom after weeks of apparently unsuccessful negotiations with the Russians. Incidentally, Gazprom and another Russian energy company, ITERA, together own 55 percent of ARG.