In the space of a week, the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan have visited Georgia amid talk of a far-reaching potential shift in the region’s energy-transit status quo. Hovering over the discussions in Tbilisi are bigger players like Russia and Iran, both looking to increase energy exports via the South Caucasus.
Emerging after a long, November 5 meeting in Tbilisi, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reaffirmed the exemplary friendship between their two countries, but, reportedly, did not mention the bear in the room — Russia’s Gazprom, which many Georgians perceive as undermining this friendship by trying to pump more Russian gas into Georgia. It currently mainly runs on Azerbaijani gas.
“Our relations will resist any test,” Margvelashvili said. Also full of praise, Aliyev on November 6 rejoiced that the pair does not have “a difference of opinions [on] any issues . . .” Azerbaijani-Georgian cooperation in energy- transit “boosts the significance of our countries in the world,” he stressed earlier.
Aliyev missed just by a few days his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, who came to Tbilisi on October 30. Sargsyan also spoke of friendship with Georgia, but the widespread perception is that he really came to talk about gas. Armenia depends almost entirely on Gazprom’s supplies.
Caught in the middle between energy powers, Georgia is the switchboard for the region’s energy-transit projects. With the West and Iran now putting aside some of their differences, Tehran has begun testing the ground for potential exports of gas to Europe through the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey pipeline.
“Transportation through Azerbaijan is one of the ways of bringing Iran’s gas to Europe,” Iranian Minister of Communications Mahmoud Vaezi said during his visit to Baku in August. Vaezi said Iran is looking to join the Southern Gas Corridor, the first leg of which is the South Caucasus Export Pipeline across Georgia and into Turkey.
Iran is also an option for Georgia to meet is its domestic demand for gas. Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze reportedly plans a visit to Tehran to discuss just that.
On the European front, Iran and Russia are shaping up as potential competitors, but for now seem to be looking for ways of cooperation. Tehran recently announced that it is negotiating an oil and gas swap with Russia via the Caspian Sea.
That has caused ears also to prick up in Armenia, the site of an Iranian gas pipeline controlled by a local affiliate of Gazprom.
Russia’s plans to increase gas supplies to Armenia and, possibly, Georgia, however, have not been uniformly warmly embraced.
Kaladze’s meetings with Gazprom touched off a flurry of protests in Georgia, with claims that the country’s energy independence — and, by extension, its ability to steer away from Russia and into Euro-Atlantic alliances — is at risk.
Kaladze insisted that the talks are focused on increasing Russia’s transit-gas to Armenia, but said that it also has to do with making Russian energy available to unnamed companies in Georgia.
Kaladze also claimed that Georgia, like any country, needs to diversify its energy supply sources. Other Georgian officials and commentators also said that over-reliance on a single source of natural gas puts Georgia in a potentially precarious position.
If that desire for diversification concerned Aliyev, he didn't show it. He stressed on November 5 that Azerbaijan has enough gas to meet its own needs as well as neighboring countries for 100 years to come, and send significant supplies to Europe, too.