On January 22, several explosions stopped the flow of Russian electricity and natural gas to the North Caucasus. An export power-transmission line was damaged in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, a republic in the west of the region, and almost simultaneously two gas pipelines were blown up in the mountains in North Ossetia.
Residents of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, were deprived of electricity and heating at a time when temperatures had dropped to record levels. “It is deliberate sabotage by the Russian authorities against Georgia,” Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared (grani.ru, January 22). In response the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described Saakashvili’s accusations as “hysteria and bacchanalia” (Interfax, January 23).
However, Saakashvili’s allegations may have merit. There have been several acts of sabotage in Georgia over the last two years. In 2004, there were four explosions of power transmission lines in different parts of the country. Last year Georgian security officials claimed they had arrested two Ossetians who were involved in a terrorist act in the town of Gori. According to police sources, the Ossetians admitted during interrogation that they had been instructed by two Russian military intelligence officers prior to organizing the explosion near the local police headquarters (lenta.ru, July 25, 2005).
On January 21, just a day before the blasts in North Ossetia and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Russian-Georgian relations had seriously deteriorated because of an incident at the Russian military base in Batumi, a city in southern Georgia. Georgian troops announced that their Russian colleagues had prevented them from entering a firing range that had already been handed over to the Georgians according to the treaty on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia. The commander of the Russian Military Group in Transcaucasia denied the allegations (kavkaz.memo.ru, January 21).
It also looks quite suspicious that the Russian authorities immediately recognized that the explosions were acts of sabotage. Usually in such cases they temporize by saying that “all versions are considered by the investigation, including the possibility of a terrorist act.” It is also unusual that Nikolai Shepel, the deputy prosecutor-general in the Southern Federal District of Russia, called the explosions acts of sabotage while past pipeline bombings in the North Caucasus had been called terrorist acts (see EDM, December 15, 2004). Shepel explained that this time nobody was hurt by the blasts, nor was there any environmental damage (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 23). Yet, there were also no casualties after several natural gas pipelines in Dagestan, in the east of the North Caucasus, were bombed in 2004 and 2005, but official investigators branded all of those incidents “terrorist acts.” Furthermore, while Russian authorities usually try to fix damaged pipelines as soon as possible, this time officials announced that repairs would take at least 100 hours (see Interfax, January 22). Clearly, Russian technicians were in no a hurry to restart the gas supply, offering more and more excuses such as the extreme cold or a gas leak from the Georgian part of the pipe to drag out the repairs. They also barred Georgian engineers from observing the process (see EDM, January 25).
On January 24, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs demanded that Russia extradite two Russian military intelligence officers, Anatoly Sysoev and Roman Boyko, who the Georgians believe were involved in sabotage and terrorist acts on Georgian territory. According to a Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs press release, Tbilisi accused these two officers of bombing several power transmission lines in Georgia in 2004. The press release went on to say, “The latest explosions in the North Caucasus were a continuation of these terrorist acts” (Izvestiya, January 24). Russian security officials responded by accusing Georgia of perpetrating the bombings: “These two explosions are an act of sabotage ordered by Tbilisi and performed by a local network of agents,” a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) source told Izvestiya (Izvestiya, January 24).
There is also another force in the North Caucasus that could be interested in the bombings: the local insurgency led by Chechen field commanders. Trying to avert suspicion from Russia, Shepel carefully hinted that the separatists might damage the pipe and power lines. “The terrorists tried to aggravate relations between Russia and the neighboring countries of Georgia and Armenia. In this case it is very important to see and to understand that terrorism in the Caucasus has no national identity, and all countries of the region should oppose it together” (Severny kavkaz, January 29).
Nevertheless, the rebels denied involvement in the blasts. On January 26, the rebel website Kavkazcenter posted a statement by North Ossetian insurgents, who are part of the Caucasian rebel army, that said, “Given the fact that infidels [Russian authorities] described the blowing up of two gas pipelines in North Ossetia as a ‘terrorist act’ allegedly committed by ‘yet-unidentified terrorists,’ and in connection with an attempt to attribute these explosions to the Muslims of Ossetia, the mujahideen of Ossetia declare that at the moment actions of this kind are not included in operational plans of the military jamaat led by Amir Saad. Moreover, all evidence available confirms that the gas pipelines were blown up by Russian special services for concrete political ends.”
In all probability, no evidence will emerge to prove the involvement of any of the three sides, but one fact is clear: the unstable situation in the North Caucasus makes Russia an unreliable supplier of energy recourses to the Transcaucasian countries.