Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bankrupt Georgia Prepares for Electric Shock

TBLISI, Georgia -- Georgia can be a dangerous place to make enemies. And Murman Lomtatidze knows he has plenty of them. In fact, he says he is one of the most unpopular men in Tbilisi. Last winter, crowds of angry Georgians gathered daily outside his office door to remind him of that fact. Guns have been waved in his face, insults hurled at him, and all for something which Lomtatidze insists is beyond his control.


Lomtatidze is in charge of Tbilisi's electricity grid. He is the man who, on an increasingly and frustratingly regular basis, has been plunging the city into darkness, factories into chaos, and hospitals into danger. What is more, Lomtatidze suspects that things are going to get worse.


Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian leader, appeared on television last week, as the city sweltered in the high 80s, to warn the public that the country's energy problem was heading out of control. Hot water, in fact any water, is already scarce in Tbilisi; power cuts are now scheduled daily.


Mr. Shevardnadze predicted this winter would see long periods without electricity or gas. He urged people to conserve energy and announced the appointment of an "energy tsar" -- Deputy Prime Minister Zurab Kervalishvili, to look for ways to head off disaster.


With the Georgian economy already crippled by three years of sporadic civil war, in Abkhazia and against the ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the state simply cannot pay its fuel bills.


"Once upon a time," mused Georgia's Energy Minister Yuri Chedia, "we had, quite literally, a river of fuel from Russia." Now Georgia has a $300 million gas bill from Turkmenistan instead. The two countries have been trying to hammer out a new deal, according to which Georgia will provide oil pipes, tea and underwear in lieu of hard cash.


At the State Bread Factory No.7, director Spartak Goginava is hoping to scrape together 20 million rubles to buy diesel generators. His employees currently earn 2 million coupons ($2) a month. Last winter he was forced to hire 20 armed guards to patrol the factory round the clock, as angry crowds gathered outside the gates. He fears he may have to do the same this year.


Back at the electricity offices they are also taking no chances. Lomatidze has just installed a brand new set of thick steel doors.