By Shakeh Avoyan
Russian natural gas resumed flowing into Georgia and was expected to reach Armenia late Monday almost nine days after mysterious explosions on a Russian pipeline left the two South Caucasus states without a key source of electricity and heating.
Officials from Russia’s Gazprom monopoly announced on Sunday that it has completed longer-than-expected repair work on a seriously damaged section of the pipeline just north of the Russian-Georgian border. They said supplies will slowly be restored to normal levels in coming days.
The Armenian national gas company, ArmRosGazprom (ARG), said it is waiting for pressure inside the pipeline to reach the required minimum at the point of its entry to Armenia. “Only after that will we be able to open taps at the border and start importing gas to Armenia,” its spokeswoman, Shushan Sardarian, told RFE/RL. “According to our projections, that will happen at around 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening.”
The completion of pipeline repairs came as a huge relief for ARG and the Armenian government which were already running out of emergency gas reserves that have allowed the country to avoid the kind of severe energy crisis that gripped Georgia. Authorities there, clearly unprepared for the emergency, had to cut off gas supplies to the population and resort to electricity blackouts.
Georgian leaders have accused Russia of deliberately blowing up the pipeline in retaliation for pro-Western policies pursued by the administration of President Mikheil Saakashvili. Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli charged on Monday that Russia also deliberately delayed repairs to the pipeline. "The moment it became clear that Georgia cannot be brought down on its knees, repairs to North Ossetia's trunk gas pipeline were finished. Repair work went on for too long," he said in comments broadcast on Georgian
television. Moscow strongly denies such accusations.
Individual and commercial gas users in Armenia have been largely unaffected by the crisis, with ARG suspending supplies only to two operating units of the country’s largest thermal power plant that generated electricity for Georgia until the pipeline blasts. “Parallel to meeting domestic demand in gas after the resumption of imports, we will be able to restore supplies to the Hrazdan thermal power plant to normal levels and replenish our gas reserves,” said Sardarian.
ARG stores gas in a vast underground site near Abovian, a town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan. Its operating capacity is 200 million cubic meters. The gas operator is currently able to use less than half of that due to the poor condition of eight out of 19 wells that pump out the stored fuel.
According to Sardarian, the Russian-Armenian joint venture needs at least $25 million in capital investments to refurbish the vital facility. “ARG specialists have developed a modernization plan for the Abovian underground storage facility and we expect to start negotiations with international finance structures soon with the aim of attracting long-term credit resources,” she said.