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With Gas Cut Off, Southeast Europe Questions Reliance On Russia

  • Ron Synovitz

A boy chops up wooden pallets to use them for heating outside Sofia on January 9.

A boy chops up wooden pallets to use them for heating outside Sofia on January 9.

It was just a year ago that Bulgaria's pro-Russian president, Georgi Parvanov, signed several energy deals with Moscow to secure its natural-gas supply -- including a proposed pipeline linking Russia and Italy through Bulgaria.

But now, many Bulgarians are accusing Russia of instigating a new Cold War that is depriving millions of Europeans of heat and hot water.

Indeed, since Russia cut off gas deliveries traveling west through Ukraine last week, millions of Bulgarians have been facing bitter winter temperatures without heat.

A protest over the cut to gas supplies was organized last week in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Sofia. But Konstantin Trenchev, chairman of the "Podkrepa" trade union, told the rally that Ukrainian authorities are not the only ones to blame for the crisis.

"Of course, we do not free the Russians from guilt. If the problems persist, we will go to the Russian Embassy and to the Council of Ministers in much bigger numbers," Trenchev said.

Aleksandr Bozhkov, a former Bulgarian deputy prime minister who now chairs the Sofia-based Center for Economic Development, says the crisis exposes the enormous economic and humanitarian cost that Bulgaria must pay for its reliance on Russia for natural gas.

Bozhkov says officials in Moscow think of Bulgaria and the western Balkans as a pro-Russian orbit of influence because of the region's long historical and cultural links to Russia. But he says the gas crisis is making many Balkan residents reconsider their relationship with Russia.

Looking For Alternatives

Bozhkov concludes that Moscow may have miscalculated the negative reaction toward Russia resulting from policies that have forced Balkan residents to shiver through the winter cold.

Stefan, a worker at Bulgaria's Kremikovtsi steelworks, says the Bulgarian government also must do more to make the country less dependent on Russia for its energy supplies.

"Ukraine and Russia should come to an agreement as soon as possible," Stefan says. "We are not part of their dispute. The other thing that has to be done -- our government must find alternative sources of gas."

Electric heaters on sale in a Bosnian market
So far, Sofia's main solution has been to consider reactivating an aging Soviet-designed nuclear reactor at Kozloduy that was shut down because of safety concerns when Bulgaria joined the European Union at the start of 2007.

Bulgaria receives 92 percent of its natural gas from Russia via pipelines that pass through Ukraine. That has left the country as one of the hardest hit by halted gas deliveries.

But at least 15 European countries, many in Southeastern Europe, have seen their gas supplies cut or reduced since Russia stopped sending gas through the Ukrainian pipelines.

Slovakia has lost 97 percent of its supplies. Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina also have been hit hard by the gas cuts -- subjecting industrial users to severe rationing and forcing many people to live without heat.

Who's To Blame

A recent poll conducted by RFE/RL across the Balkans shows that few people living there see Russia, Ukraine, or the European Union as the biggest losers in the gas dispute.

The poll is not scientific. But more than two-thirds of respondents said the biggest losers are ordinary people who are struggling without heat through the winter.

In Serbia, reports by state-controlled media largely blame Ukraine for Serbia's heating crisis. Those reports quote Moscow's claims that Ukraine has been stealing gas as it passes through pipelines linking Russia to the Balkans.

Dusan Bajatovic, director of the state-owned SerbiaGaz, says Ukraine bears the bulk of responsibility for the obstruction of Russian gas shipments to Europe.

But Sika Pistolova, a correspondent for the Belgrade-based "Energy Observer," clearly puts the blame on Russia. Pistolova says that the Serbian government should file lawsuits against the Russian export monopoly Gazprom because of the hardships now being caused by their cuts to gas supplies through pipelines that transit Ukraine.

"We do not have a legal basis to sue Ukraine," Pistolova says. "Our contract is signed with Gazprom."

Just Politics

In Bosnia, Sarajevo resident Aleksa Filipovic says it is ordinary people who must suffer as the victims of a political dispute between Ukraine and Russia.

"The problem with gas from Russia through Ukraine is now becoming a problem for ordinary people in all of Europe," Filipovic says. "As a citizen, I cannot understand how this can happen in the 21st century. How can people do this? And I imagine that this is most likely a kind of political game being played."

Sarajevo resident Elmana Secic says the crisis is not what Bosnians had imagined life would be like after the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

No gas is making its way through Ukraine.
"After all we have gone through, we are now again being deprived of heat. Citizens of Sarajevo, because of our domestic political games and because of international political games related to this dispute between Russia and Ukraine, are again suffering the consequences," Secic says.

In Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniester, many people have told RFE/RL that they blame Ukraine for the crisis, not Russia.

"Of course the Ukrainian side is to blame for this," one man says. "They should have paid for gas on time. It's a pity that because of Ukraine's leadership, it's not only the former Soviet Union that is going to suffer, but also other foreign countries. I think this issue will be resolved soon because it's causing a lot of problems: large factories are stopping their work, schools [are closing]."

Analysts say that view is not surprising for a region where the state media is sympathetic to Moscow's position in the crisis. And one villager from Transdniester says that the crisis won't have a great impact on the lives of rural residents, who still have wood-burning stoves.

RFE/RL's Moldova and South Slavic and Albanian Language services contributed to this article
Tangled Web
Many sections of Ukraine's gas-pipeline system date back to the Soviet era and make it difficult to precisely control gas flows.

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