Moscow accused of using gas prices to bully Georgia

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Russia was accused yesterday of using its massive energy resources as a political weapon after telling neighbouring Georgia that it planned to more than double the price of gas.

The price hike was announced in the middle of a bitter political row between the two countries, and was interpreted by the Georgian side as "punishment" for the country's perceived anti-Russian course.

Georgia is already suffering a de facto economic blockade imposed by Russia in September after a spy scandal between the two nations that saw relations sink to a new low. It now faces the prospect of having its gas supply switched off as winter begins to bite, unless it can reach an agreement with the Russian side before the New Year.

Gela Bezhuashvili, Georgia's Foreign Minister, claimed Russia was using gas as a weapon to pile pressure on his country to get it to return to Moscow's sphere of influence.

"They present it as a commercial deal," he told reporters. "But there is a big portion of politics in it. Why is it that yesterday it was $110 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas, and today it is $230? This is the price we pay for our [pro-Western] choice."

The two countries have been at loggerheads ever since Mikhail Saakashvili was elected Georgia's President in 2004, and said he wanted his country to join Nato and the EU. But Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled energy giant, claims it is treating Georgia the same as it treats all its international customers. It says its decision to increase prices is driven by economics, not politics.

The company argues that it merely wants to halt the practice of subsidising former Soviet states by providing them with cheap energy, something that is not in Russia's own economic interests. According to Gazprom, it is high time that countries such as Georgia paid "the market rate", like customers in eastern and western Europe. Russia, it argues, cannot be expected to provide preferential treatment to Georgia when it has, in effect, snubbed Moscow by moving out of its sphere of influence and cosying up to Washington.

Georgia is not the first former Soviet state to face such pressure from Gazprom. Ukraine, another country perceived to have embarked on a pro-Western course at Russia's expense, was told last year that it would have to pay a lot more for its gas. When an agreement was not reached, Russia cut gas supplies to Ukraine for a few days at the beginning of this year, until a deal was reached.

At the time, Russia was condemned by many Western politicians, who accused Moscow of using its energy resources to bully its neighbours. The incident marred the beginning of Russia's chairmanship of the G8 group of nations, and sparked a lively debate in Europe about the continent's dependence on Russian gas supplies.

It will be reluctant to court such negative publicity again, and Mr Bezhuashvili has apparently been reassured that there is no prospect of Georgia's gas supply being cut off. But yesterday he said he couldn't rule it out, and disclosed that Georgia was looking into the possibility of buying gas from Azerbaijan, Turkey, or Iran instead.

Russia cut diplomatic relations with Georgia in September after the authorities in Tbilisi arrested four Russian military officers it accused of spying.

The Kremlin dismissed the allegation as "outrageous", and has since severed all land, sea, and air links with Georgia and started deporting Georgian nationals.

Relations are further strained by events in two breakaway republics, with Georgia accusing Russia of supporting separatists on Georgian soil.