Despite massive donations of foreign aid, repairing Yugoslavia's aging and battered energy sector remains a key priority for the country. RFE/RL correspondent Kit Kadlec speaks to Yugoslav energy experts and foreign donors about whether the country's power plants can be running at full capacity by this winter -- and the consequences for Yugoslavia's government if they cannot.
Prague, 21 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In remarks last week (14 May), Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said one of Yugoslavia's top priorities was stabilizing the economy. More specifically, Yugoslav analysts say, the government is looking for a way to solve the country's energy shortage -- and quickly.
Nikola Rajkovic, a professor at Belgrade University, is one of Yugoslavia's leading energy experts. He told RFE/RL that potential power cuts this winter could have a destabilizing effect on the country: "If the complete -- the whole picture -- of normal everyday life is going to be improved by next winter, [then] the electricity sector is not of that [much] importance. But otherwise, if [the] economy is not going to work, and cuts are going to be present during next winter, [then] of course stability is pretty hard in such circumstances to maintain."
Since ousting former President Slobodan Milosevic in general elections seven months ago, Kostunica and his democratic government have been scrambling to attract foreign investment in order to help rebuild the economy.
While Serbs have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Kostunica's government, a crisis in the energy sector may test the limits of people's patience. Rajkovic says if heating is cut this winter, people will react "very, very strongly."
Last winter, Yugoslavia's state-owned electricity monopoly Elektroprivreda Srbije, or EPS, cut off power in many homes in Serbia for up to 10 hours a day due to low power supplies. Demonstrators took to the streets in December and January in peaceful protests over the lack of heating.
The winter is a critical time in Serbia, where heating comprises some 60 percent of the demand for electricity.
John White is the spokesman in Belgrade for the European Agency for Reconstruction. He says both the Yugoslav and Serbian governments have made it clear to donors that the energy sector is a priority.
"At the end of the day, the political priorities [and] the economic priorities are set by the government. So definitely the electrical power system was the prime candidate for aid last winter and continues to be the prime candidate for aid throughout this year."
Belgrade University professor Rajkovic says there is some cause for optimism regarding the upcoming winter. Recent rainfall has meant the country's hydroelectric plants will be operating near capacity. Last year, Serbia's energy problems were exacerbated by a drought that left the plants operating at only partial capacity. Hydroelectric plants account for nearly 40 percent of the energy produced in Serbia.
Rajkovic adds that residual damage from NATO's 1999 bombing campaign was also to blame for last year's power shortage. He says it will take years to repair the damage:
"[The] NATO bombing made a severe impact on the power supply, and generally on the energy sector. It's difficult to say [how long it will take to repair] -- five years, seven years, ten years. But for sure, the level of destruction and technical implications are pretty high."
Last winter, European emergency aid to Yugoslavia was seen mostly as a short-term solution. Germany donated $17 million worth of imported electricity, and the EU gave an additional $40 million worth.
EU external affairs spokesman Gunner Weigand says the Union is now looking for a long-term solution to Yugoslavia's energy woes.
"We need to help to repair a number of refineries and power stations. That is in full swing and that will be further done under our 2001 assistance program, independent of the longer-term efforts. The key is now to get the existing capacity fully used again. This is done via repairs and via spare-parts deliveries so that the autonomous production in the country can go back to previous levels and not be so dependent on massive imports."
Yugoslavia, which has always relied on natural gas imports, has in recent years begun to increase its electricity imports as well, due both to bombing damage and the general disrepair of the sector. The country currently imports 23 percent of its electricity needs.
Elektroprivreda Srbije is expected to cut back most of its generating capacity this summer to make room for vital repair work. Rajkovic says it is possible that, as a result, electricity could be cut off in Serbian homes this summer.
"The people in the EPS should put [much] of the generating capacity out of operation because of huge maintenance work. And [power cuts] can happen, you know, but we do hope it is not going to be of severe impact."
However, White of the European Agency for Reconstruction says the agency just signed a contract to import more than $6 million worth of electricity to tide the country over while EPS is being repaired.
Tanja Radovic, a Belgrade student who voted for Kostunica in October, says even if there are more power cuts this year, she and other Serbs are willing to withstand much harsher dilemmas before withdrawing support of the current government.
"We should support our government, because it is too early to make any predictions [about] whether it is going to be good or not. We are used to a lack of electricity, because even during the '80s we had a lack of electricity."
Popular Serbian singer Djordje Balasevic tried to put the energy situation in perspective at a Belgrade concert this January, when protests over power cuts were at their peak. He said: "You are complaining about the government cutting your power, but remember while we were under Milosevic, it was people who were being cut."