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Serbs, Bosnians First To Lose Home Heating In Gas Crisis

A technician from state-owned Sarajevo Gas shows zero pressure on a gauge at a gas distribution facility near Sarajevo on January 7.
A technician from state-owned Sarajevo Gas shows zero pressure on a gauge at a gas distribution facility near Sarajevo on January 7.
BELGRADE/SARAJEVO -- With temperatures dipping to minus 5 degrees Celsius, talk on the streets of Belgrade is all about the Russia-Ukraine natural-gas dispute.

Dimitrije, who offers only his first name, expresses the feelings of many when he says, "I hope that Russians are going to be cooperative."

Serbia is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas piped through Ukraine to Southeastern Europe. Normally, the country gets 90 percent of its gas this way.

But on January 6, the gas stopped flowing. And Serbia, which has no gas stockpiles, is among the first countries to suffer the chilling consequences.

Early on January 7, most Serbian heating plants began switching from gas to oil. People living near such plants are the lucky ones. The centrally controlled temperature in their homes has been reduced to no more than 16-18 degrees Celsius, but the heat is still on.

In some parts of Belgrade and Novi Sad, and in a number of small towns, the gas-fired heating plants cannot be converted. There, electric space heaters are the only option.

Bitter, Helpless

Predictably, consumption of electricity shot up on January 6 to record levels. The question now is how long the country's aging power grid can cope with the demand.

Everyone feels helpless. Some are bitter.

One man, Stojan, sarcastically blames the Serbian government for keeping almost no energy reserves.

Small entrepreneurs in Bosnia have started selling wood and coal after gas supplies were cut off.
"We do not need heating. All news is bad news, and this is no different," he says. "But it is unbelievable that the state has heating oil reserves for one day. I have much bigger reserves in my cellar. What kind of state is this?!"

The manager of state-owned Srbijagas says there are only enough gas reserves in the country for a matter of hours. He said the country's oil stockpile is enough for one day.

That kind of news brings out the stoicism that is the ordinary citizen's final resource.

"After so many sanctions in the past, we should survive and we should find the way out of the crisis," says one woman who said her name was Jovanka.

Nobody is asking us for our opinion. The politicians are doing what they want, and we can just wait and freeze.
Far away, Moscow and Ukraine blame each other for cutting off the gas to Europe. Their dispute is over how much Ukraine will pay for gas deliveries in 2009 and how much Moscow will pay for sending gas through Ukraine's pipelines.

But Serbs, most of whom regard Russia as their closest ally, find it incredible that they should be dragged into the fight.

Belgrade last month finalized an agreement with Moscow to sell a majority stake in Serbia's state-run oil company, NIS, to Gazprom.

At the time, officials hailed the move as a step toward Serbian energy security. Moscow said it would make Serbia a distribution hub for Russia's planned South Stream gas pipeline across the Black Sea to southern Europe -- guaranteeing plenty of gas in Serbia, too.

Now it seems Russian gas comes with no guarantees until South Stream is built around 2015, even if the Balkans freeze in the meantime.

Next door in Bosnia, it is just as cold, with temperatures dipping as low as minus 7 degrees Celsius.

Anger And Stoicism

And on the streets of Sarajevo, there is the same mixture of incomprehension, anger, and stoicism.

"All this is politics, Russian politics," says one woman.

"Nobody is asking us for our opinion," says another. "The politicians are doing what they want, and we can just wait and freeze."

"We managed during the war," a third woman pipes in. "We will manage now."

Again, there are virtually no gas reserves and the alternative, oil, is in short supply.

Sarajevo's city heating company says its oil stocks are sufficient for only three to seven days. BH Gas company manager Almir Becarevic told local media, "If this lasts, it could turn into a true humanitarian disaster."

In both Belgrade and Sarajevo, emergency government meetings and appeals to the population to save energy are the order of the day.

But no one is under any illusions. The only real solution to the crisis lies in the outcome of the talks between Moscow and Kyiv. And in those talks, the voices of Russia's chilly gas customers in the Balkans seem to have little weight.

Reporting by RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service; written by correspondent Charles Recknagel
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