- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

SOFIA, Bulgaria

Bulgarian school children bundled in wool coats sang songs to keep warm in their bitterly cold classroom. Bosnians drove hours to snap up electric heaters. And in Serbia, millions woke up to the Eastern Orthodox Christmas under the threat of winter hardship.

Russia’s decision to cut gas supplies to Europe through Ukraine on Wednesday hit the Balkans hard as a deep freeze descended on much of the region.

Tens of thousands of households were left without heat because of a pricing dispute between Russia and Ukraine that has left more than a dozen countries with dwindling energy supplies in the coldest months of the year.

“Is this the 21st century? How can someone leave me without heating in minus 10 degrees (Celsius) because of a dispute I have nothing to do with?” asked Snjezana Kordic, 51, who was wrapped in blankets in her home in downtown Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.

For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Christmas falls on Wednesday and the holiday in predominantly Orthodox Serbia was ushered in with a shudder of fear about the future.

“We depend on the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, how silly is that?” asked 44-year-old Belgrade architect Djordje Gec.

Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member, was among the worst hit. Some 92 percent of its gas supplies come from Russia via Ukraine and, unlike southern neighbors Greece and Turkey, it has no links to alternative gas routes. Gas is widely used in industry and for heating in larger cities.

In Sofia’s Mladost district, first-graders huddled in their classroom wearing winter coats and gloves. With temperatures below freezing outside, their teacher decided it was too cold to write, and switched the lesson to singing.

Dozens of other Bulgarian schools didn’t open at all because of the heating crisis.

In the eastern city of Varna, where some 12,000 households spent the night without central heating, angry residents protested in front of the Russian Consulate carrying slogans that read “Stop Putin’s gas war.”

In Bosnia, with temperatures well below freezing and the nation lacking any gas reserves, the situation was approaching a humanitarian disaster, said Adis Salkic, spokesman for the city’s gas operator, Sarajevogas.

Bosnia imports all its gas from Russia through Ukraine, Hungary and Serbia, and gas deliveries halted on Tuesday evening.

Within hours, all electrical heaters had sold out of Sarajevo shops and many of the 240,000 people left without heat moved in with family or friends who had alternative heating systems, such as oil or electricity.

About 72,000 Sarajevo households have been left without heating.

Russia supplies one-quarter of Europe’s natural gas, and about 80 percent of that is shipped through pipelines crossing Ukraine. Other smaller pipelines run through Belarus and Turkey.

Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey all reported a halt in Russian gas shipments by Wednesday. Others including Austria, France, Germany, Hungary and Poland reported substantial drops in supplies.

Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom stopped all gas shipments to Ukraine on Jan. 1 after the two countries failed to agree on prices and transit fees for 2009, but kept supplies flowing to Europe over Ukraine’s pipelines.

Russia reduced supplies Tuesday, accusing Ukraine of siphoning off gas meant for Europe. But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered a halt to all shipments Wednesday.

In Washington, U.S. officials accused Russia of using its energy resources to threaten its neighbors.

“Cutting off these supplies during winter to a vulnerable population is just something that is unacceptable to us,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley warned Moscow if it continues to threaten its neighbors and manipulate their access to energy it will “compromise any aspirations for greater global influence.”

In a protest letter to Ukraine and Russia, Bosnia’s Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj said the cutoff “jeopardizes 4 million people who should not be hostages of a dispute between the Ukraine and Russia.”

By Wednesday afternoon, some people were driving as far as the southern Bosnian city of Mostar, 75 miles from Sarajevo, to find electric heaters.

Similar scenes played out in the Bulgarian capital, where hundreds swarmed shops searching for heaters.

“I’m glad I got one, although I fear that the additional electricity costs will ruin the family budget,” said Tsvyatko Peev, who got the last electric heater in one downtown store.

Associated Press writers Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Bosnia; Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; Maria Danilova in Kiev, Ukraine, and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.

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