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GeorgiaAt around 20.45 local time on 12th October 2002 a power failure at the Mikheil Meskhi stadium in Tbilisi plunged Georgia’s Euro 2004 qualifying match against Russia into darkness. It wasn’t to be the last time that an energy shortage in the Caucasus would cause a blackout in the relationship between these two bitter rivals.

Captaining Georgia that night was AC Milan defender Kakha Kaladze, the young republic’s most famous footballing export, but even the defensive barricade that would go on to collect a Champions League winners medal barely three years later was powerless to intercede as he and his teammates waited with uncertainty in the Tbilisi darkness. Today Kaladze serves his country from his seat in the Georgian parliament from where he runs the rule over state energy policy as a member of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s cabinet.

It’s a portfolio which comes marked highly sensitive, even in a part of Europe where diplomacy is historically fragile and natural resources play a role in a high stakes game of political chess. The Energy Minister, like so much of Eastern Europe in 2013, finds himself looking to play the interests of his country off against an unstable set of relationships with the international locale. In politics, as in football, the act is a delicate thing to balance.

As a player Kaladze lacked much of the reverie that fell upon other famous Georgian exports. He never won the public consciousness in the way that the free-scoring magicians Shota Arveladze and Georgi Kinkladze did with such mercurial ease, nor does his name adorn the country’s sports venues as Meskhi’s does at the old national stadium and Boris Paichadze’s does at the 74,000-seater behemoth in the capital. None of that quartet ever captained an independent Georgia nor wore such renowned colours as the red and black of the Rossoneri yet it was Kaladze who commanded tepid affections at best in the homeland in his playing days, epitomised by the public grilling he received after putting through his own net twice against Italy in a qualifying match in 2004.

These days it’s political own-goals that the former centre-half looks to avoid but it remains defence, be it of Georgia’s diplomatic place in the ex-Soviet space or of the republic’s internal capacity to provide its citizens with power and warmth, that occupies the tools of Kaladze’s trade. Fortunate, too, that popularity has never been high up on the minister’s agenda as energy policy takes a controversial turn towards Moscow.

The trade in natural gas between Georgia and Russia ceased in 2007, fully a year before the Caucasus fell into a war over the break-away republic of South Ossetia but still a product of nearly two decades of simmering tensions over Ossetian independence and gas prices – an issue which came to a head in 2006 when Russia sabotaged the main pipeline that supplies Georgia.

The Rose Revolution of 2004 that brought anti-Russian president Mikheil Saakashvili to power had marked the beginning of a process of increasing alignment between Tbilisi and the US, which did nothing to soothe the mood in the Kremlin when hostilities began in South Ossetia.

Now Kaladze and his colleagues in the cabinet work within the limits set by those hostilities, and the trade in energy bears the most lasting legacy of the bilateral breakdown in Russian-Georgian relations.

Since 2007 the government in Tbilisi has relied on neighbouring Azerbaijan for almost all of its gas supply (around 10% is still syphoned from Russia as the Mozdok-Tbilisi Pipeline snakes its way through the Caucasus towards Armenia, though it is the latter who pay the gas back to Georgia from their own share) but the tune coming from the energy ministry lately has been changing.

Kaladze’s sudden ascent up the political ladder is owed in no small part to the backing he received from former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a metal dealer and financier who got rich quick off the back off rapid privatisation in the early nineties and owes the majority of his estimated $6.4billion fortune to business relationships in Russia. That connection is not insignificant in the new approach of Georgian state policy towards Moscow.

Though Ivanishvili denies that any ties, business or otherwise, with Russia are colouring his attitudes what is certain is that his protégé in the energy ministry is talking up the possibility of re-establishing trade in natural gas with the country’s northern neighbour after a six year hiatus, and this in itself leaves the door ajar for some movement in a bitterly gridlocked bottleneck.

Kaladze talks about diversification, minimising the risks wrought by single-source dependency and channelling resources into growing renewable energy, but for critics the warning left by Saakashvili in the wake of the South Ossetia crisis still bears heeding – a re-opening of fuel trade with Russia will warrant “a serious revision of Georgia’s independent course.”

If Kaladze gets his wish and trade is resumed it is likely to be the closest that any Georgian footballer gets to the Russians for some time. The war in 2008 lead UEFA to stick Georgia vs. Russia on its list of ‘forbidden’ matches, choosing to keep football out of any potential security risks posed by the fixture, rather than using the game to help those involved to channel their differences into sport.

One year after the blackout in Tbilisi the sides played in Moscow in what was to be their last meeting for as long as the recriminations over South Ossetia continue to burn, the visitors surrendering an early advantage to slip to a 3-1 defeat. Kaladze was absent that day but the droll symmetry between the challenges he faced as a player and as a minister – struggling to champion the cause of his country against the crushing weight of gargantuan neighbours –surely grants him the occasional sobering pause.

A conversation with Russia about diversifying gas supply might, as Kaladze mooted earlier this year, stir competition and drive down prices. It might also turn heads against him in a country still bearing the scars of a massive refugee crisis caused by displacement and a brutal ethnic war, for which Russia is publicly vilified. You feel the San Siro on derby day would have been a stroll compared to this.

By Robert O’Connor

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