Kyiv, 3 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Last month Kyiv brushed away thousands of striking miners, haggling for weeks over limited concessions to coal industry workers. This week Russian electricity producers cut off power to the Kharkhiv and Sumy regions without paying any attention to the Ukrainian authorities. The two developments are related.
Russian power companies threw the switch four days ago (June 29), leaving dozens of villages and rural businesses in East Ukraine dark and silent. "The countryside lost power for extended periods of time," Kharkhiv Region spokesperson Galina Solotykh told RFE/RL. "We are working to restore power using a local electricity provider, but it is taking time."
Abutted against Russia and still tied in to Soviet-era power lines, the Kharkhiv and Sumy regions receive most of their electricity from suppliers across the border.
But already owed millions for power delivers by dead-beat Ukrainian companies and communities, Russian generators will provide only so much electricity and no more for peak periods or Ukrainian power glitches.
This means that, when Ukrainian national electricity production dips below 440-450 million kWh daily, the lights start going off in Kharkhiv and Sumy. It happened once last month and now for the first three days of July, Solotykh said.
"We are confident that we can keep the power on full time in the cities," she predicted. "But the countryside may be more difficult."
While regional officials scrambled to keep the flow of electricity to homes and factories, the national government took up again the challenge of running an industrialized country on credit.
"The main cause behind this chaotic disconnection," said Ukrainian Power Engineering Minister Alexy Shebertsov, "is Ukraine's debt to Russia for payment for consumed heat and electricity."
As of June 30, Ukrainian farms, factories, and mines owed Russian power companies some Hr. 3.7 billion ($1.8 billion), Shebertsov said. And the problem will not go away because Ukraine simply does not have enough fuel for its coal-fired power plants to meet summer electricity needs.
A summer coal shortage in a country with the third or fourth largest coal reserves on the planet?
"That's what happens," explained Chairman of the Miners' Independent Trade Union of Ukraine Mykhailo Volynets. "If you leave coal miners without salaries for eight months."
For most of June about a third of Ukraine's 154 coal mines were on strike, their workers picketing regional governments and even marching to Kyiv. The government ignored the protests. By the end of July Ukrainian coal stock levels will fall drastically, forcing daily consumption of up to 45,000 million tons from national reserves, said First Vice Premier Anatoly Holubchenko.
In the face of limited Ukrainian production capacity, the government is planning to import Russian coal, Holubchenko said. But this is a politically explosive issue.
Back in Kharkhiv, few were looking to the central government for any real assistance. There, everybody was convinced that the national problem of energy shortage requires local solutions. "We're going to deal with the Russians directly," Solotykh said. "Our links to these companies are well-established."