By Ruben Meloyan
Officials in Yerevan appeared confident on Thursday that Armenia will be unaffected, at least in the next two years, by a possible further increase in the price of Russian natural gas delivered to neighboring Georgia.
Signaling a further escalation of Moscow’s standoff with Tbilisi, an official from Gazprom said on Thursday that the state-run Russian monopoly wants to more than double the price of its gas for Georgia to $230 per thousand cubic meters.
Gazprom had already doubled the crucial tariff to $110 per thousand cubic meters for both Georgia and Armenia almost one year ago. The latter will continue to pay much less for Russian gas until January 2009 as a result of a controversial deal that gave Gazprom control over a major power plant and a controlling stake in Armenia’s gas distribution network. The Russian giant is expected to get hold of an incoming gas pipeline from Iran.
Finance and Economy Minister Vartan Khachatrian suggested that the deal commits the Russians to keeping the gas price unchanged in 2007 and 2008. “It is logical to believe that there should be no changes during this period,” he told RFE/RL.
Russia was already accused of using energy to blackmail its pro-Western neighbors when it announced the previous price hike. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli charged on Thursday that the latest Gazprom threats are also politically motivated.
Moscow has insisted all along that it is simply applying the laws of economics to gas exports, arguing that ex-Soviet states have long been paying much less than Gazprom's rich customers in the European Union. Gazprom has so far announced no plans to raise the gas price for Armenia, which uses Russian gas for generating about 40 percent of its electricity.
The latest Russian demands from Georgia came just two days after President Robert Kocharian’s visit to Moscow. Energy-related issues were apparently high on the agenda of his talks with Russian President, with Kocharian confirming that Gazprom has raised from 45 percent to 58 percent its stake in Armenia’s ARG gas operator as part of the April deal.
Georgian officials warned earlier that they could respond to Russian price hikes by raising fees for the transit of Russian gas to Armenia via Georgian territory. Khachatrian said it is Gazprom that should foot the extra bill in the event of a fee increase.