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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Open to Tbilisi Gas Talks

APSaakashvili, seen in Monaco on Friday, said he would meet with Putin soon.
The Kremlin said Monday that Georgia's gas price remained open for negotiation and that it was unclear whether President Vladimir Putin would sit down with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to discuss the price later this month.

Saakashvili said Friday that he would meet with Putin at the end of the month, possibly at a regional summit in Minsk.

Gazprom said last week that it would more than double Georgia's gas price to $230 per 1,000 cubic meters next year, prompting protests from Tbilisi and an appeal from Washington.

A Kremlin spokesman said Monday that Saakashvili would indeed "share a table" with Putin at a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Minsk, but "whether there will be a bilateral meeting, that is another question." The summit date has yet to be set.

The spokesman said the gas price was subject to negotiation and insisted that the formula used to calculate the gas price was standard for all Gazprom clients. He declined to be more specific.

Gazprom officials could not be reached Monday, a public holiday.

Georgian Economic Development Minister Irakly Chogovadze sought to downplay the effect that a gas price hike would have on Georgia's economy. "Our economy is unshrinkable," he said, switching to English for the word "unshrinkable."

Georgia's economy will grow 8 percent this year and at least 8 percent next year, even if Russia extends a ban on Georgian wine, mineral water and other goods, Chogovadze said by telephone.

Georgia could afford the $230 price tag but would rather turn to other countries, he said. He noted that Georgia quickly tapped gas supplies from Azerbaijan and Iran after a pipeline explosion in North Ossetia disrupted Russian supplies in January. He declined to discuss how quickly his country could get new contracts with Iran and Azerbaijan.

Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze told lawmakers Monday that she did not hold much hope that talks would result in a lower gas price. Fuel and Energy Minister Nika Gilauri told the parliament Georgia had enough energy for the winter, so gas imports would be "insignificant."

While Georgian officials could not confirm whether Saakashvili would meet with Putin, they welcomed the idea of talks. "Any dialogue, even the beginning of a dialogue would be positive," Chogovadze said, praising talks last week by the two countries' foreign ministers, the first high-level meeting since relations soured in late September.

The presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland on Monday called on Moscow to improve relations with Tbilisi.

The U.S. State Department urged Moscow on Friday to be a "good partner for its clients and a reliable supplier of energy." "We believe that market forces should determine the price levels," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Chogovadze expressed hope that the gas price issue would remain on the radar of Western governments even though Georgia -- unlike Ukraine -- was not a major transit route to Europe and only carried Russian gas to Armenia. For now, "the level of Western support is absolutely adequate," Chogovadze said.

Saakashvili told reporters at a security conference Friday in Monaco that he would meet Putin at the end of the month, possibly in Minsk.

"Hopefully I can surprise Putin there," he said, Bloomberg reported.