While Georgia has been caught up recently in a major pipeline competition, with Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran all making a play for the action in this small, strategically located energy-transit hub, some men in the central Georgian village of Ruisi have been busy with a pipeline project of their own.
They lay a kilometer-long, underground pipeline to leach into the British Petroleum-operated, more than 800-kilometer-long Western Route Export Pipeline, which carries 100,000 barrels of oil daily from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea coast to Georgia’s Black Sea coast. Known as the Baku-Supsa pipeline for the terminals at both ends, the conduit was the first link in the country’s energy-export network.
The suspects built their own terminal in Ruisi, about a 20-minute drive west of Joseph Stalin’s birthplace, Gori, and created a parallel world of shipping, processing and retailing the Caspian Sea oil. A police video showed rows of large tanks used to collect the stolen oil. A makeshift tap was installed on the body of the Baku-Supsa pipeline to turn off and on the flow into its new, mini- branch.
From Ruisi, the oil was loaded onto trucks and camouflaged as vegetables – cabbage, to be exact, police said – and driven about 90 minutes east to the capital, Tbilisi. A makeshift refinery there then turned the cabbage-concealed crude into petroleum products.
Illegal tapping into the Baku-Supsa route, essentially a refurbished Soviet-era pipeline, has happened before. Poverty explains the motivation. Decent jobs in rural Georgia are few, if any; a fact illustrated by Tbilisi’s growing population.
But the latest crude caper seems the largest and the most elaborate operation so far. The heftier Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, is less susceptible to such poaching.
Georgian villagers have meddled with other types of subterranean international conduits. In 2011, an elderly woman scavenging for copper with a spade sliced a major fiber-optic cable, leaving all of Armenia and part of Georgia without Internet access.
For their own operation, the two Ruisi oilmen, whose identities were kept confidential pending trial, could face up to 10 years in prison.