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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 January 2006, 00:02 GMT
Georgians blame 'GasPutin' for crisis
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Tbilisi

Protesters in front of the headquarters of Russian troops in Tbilisi hold caricatures of President Putin
Georgians have voiced their anger personally at President Putin
Braving freezing temperatures, several hundred people gathered on the dark street in front of the headquarters of the Russian army command in Tbilisi on Monday night.

Clustering around bonfires, they swayed to the national music and held caricatures of the Russian President. "GasPutin," their slogans read.

"It's too cold to stay inside anyway," one of the protesters joked.

"Of course, and all because of him," another responded, pointing to the photograph of the Russian president.

Those who did not dare to come outside honked in support from the warmth of their passing cars.

In the dark streets and freezing homes of Tbilisi everyone, it seems, is blaming Moscow.

Cut-off nation

Georgia is now getting half of the gas it needs, but so far this has been enough only for parts of the capital.

Georgian workers chop fire wood for sale at a market in Tbilisi
Wood markets have sprung around Tbilisi

The rest of the country and outskirts of the capital are still without gas, and many do not have electricity either.

Officials say their priority is to restore supplies in the mountainous areas, which have been worst hit.

It is an especially cold winter in Georgia: Temperatures are below freezing.

Heavy snow in the mountains has blocked off many roads, preventing rescue teams from delivering emergency supplies of kerosene and wood.

War of words

The crisis began on Sunday, when a series of explosions blew up two gas pipelines and an electricity power line in the North Caucasus, cutting off energy supplies to Georgia and neighbouring Armenia.

The explosions happened on Russian territory, but immediately Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili blamed Moscow for what he called a pre-planned act of sabotage, orchestrated by Russian officials.

A Russian soldier guards part of the Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline, twisted by a blast

"We've received numerous threats by Russian politicians and officials at different levels to punish us for basically for not giving them pipelines," Mr Saakashvili said.

But so far Tbilisi has not provided evidence to back the claims, which Moscow branded as hysterical and outrageous.

On Monday, Russia's ambassador to Georgia, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, called on Georgian officials to stop politicising the issue, expressing serious concerns about Tbilisi's rhetoric.

Ambassador Chkhikvishvili said the explosions were an act of terrorism aimed at destabilising relations between the two countries.

President Saakashvili's statements, some Russian MPs believe, are destabilising them even further.

'Like slaves'

But many in Georgia - like 52-year-old Tamara Grishashvili - seem to agree with President Saakashvili.

Principal oil and gas pipelines in the Caucasus.

"We've been nice to them for many years, and in response we've been always treated like slaves. So enough kneeling down in front of Russia, let's say what we think about them and not worry about it," Mrs Grishashvili said.

Russia is now redirecting some of the gas through Azerbaijan, but it will take another week until all supplies are restored.

For thousands here it means a week with no heating during the coldest winter Georgia has experienced in decades.

But the worst damage is perhaps that done to already very tense and complicated ties between Russia and Georgia.

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