TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Thousands of Georgians formed a human chain stretching for about 7 kilometers (4 miles) through the capital on Sunday to protest negotiations between their government and Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom.
The demonstrators, supporters of the main opposition party, said they fear that buying gas from state-controlled Gazprom would make the former Soviet republic dependent on Moscow. But even before Sunday's protest the opposition appeared close to winning its case.
The government announced Friday that it had signed a deal with neighboring Azerbaijan to increase gas supplies enough to fully cover Georgian demand. Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze previously had justified the negotiations with Gazprom by saying Azerbaijan didn't have the technical ability to supply more gas, but he said this problem has now been overcome.
"They tried to deceive us by saying it was not technically possible to increase gas supplies from Azerbaijan," David Bakradze, the opposition leader in parliament, said Sunday. "But they failed because people didn't believe them and forced the government to do everything possible to receive additional fuel from Azerbaijan. We will not allow Georgia to be under Russia's control."
A related issue is how Gazprom compensates Georgia for the gas transported across Georgian territory to Armenia. In the past, Georgia has taken 10 percent of the gas, but Gazprom recently demanded that Georgia accept payment, apparently expecting that this would force Georgia to buy Russian gas.
Kaladze said Gazprom has now agreed to leave the previous barter arrangement in place, but the contract still needs to be signed.
The Georgian government says it has received 200 million cubic meters of Russian natural gas per year in return for the transit. Under the new agreement with Socar, Azerbaijan's state oil and gas producer, Georgia will receive an additional 500 million cubic meters per year.