From Russia with love,but without gas

Maria Pavlova,a 70-year-old widow and retired nurse with a pension of about $75 a month,had been shivering in her apartment for five days...

Written by New York Times | Sofia | Published: January 13, 2009 2:39 am

Maria Pavlova,a 70-year-old widow and retired nurse with a pension of about $75 a month,had been shivering in her apartment for five days,standing over the electric oven in her kitchen to warm herself. She despaired at the prospect of another cold shower.

“This is a war without weapons,in which Russia has used its control of energy supply to flex its muscles in front of the world,” she said,the thermometer showing an indoor temperature equivalent to 43 degrees Fahrenheit. “I am cold and angry. We have always been dependent on Russia,and the situation hasn’t changed. Instead of bombs or missiles,they want us to freeze to death.”

Many in this Balkan country were accusing Russia of instigating a new cold war,depriving millions of Europeans of heat and fuel to strike a political blow against the West.

Since Russia cut off the flow of natural gas through pipelines in Ukraine last week in a price dispute,many of the 7.3 million Bulgarians have been without heat during a bitter January cold snap. If the dispute is resolved and the taps are reopened by Gazprom,the Russian state-owned fuel company,it could take three days for supplies to reach consumers here,experts said.

The crisis has underscored how Russia can use its energy might to hold Europe hostage. Bulgaria,a member of the European Union and NATO,has been trying to shrug off its Communist past. The crisis has made it acutely aware of its vulnerability to Russia — Bulgaria,the poorest country in the EU,relies almost entirely on natural gas from Russia.

“The situation is reminiscent of the siege of Stalingrad,” Vlado Todorov Panayotov,a Bulgarian member of the European Parliament referring to the misery endured in World War II when the Nazis tried to take that Russian city,now known as Volgograd.

In Sofia,the capital,at a maternity ward where mothers cradled their newborns in front of space heaters,Amelia Mladenova,24,said she could not believe that a disagreement over energy prices was putting the lives of children at risk.

“Moscow has put economic interests ahead of human rights,” she said,rocking her 4-day-old son,Miroslav,in her arms.

Since the crisis began,dozens of kindergartens and 68 schools across the country have been closed,and some hospitals have had to postpone operations. Sofia’s commuter streetcars and buses have been ordered to turn off the heat.

At the Sofia zoo,African monkeys were being fed warm herbal tea to prevent them from falling ill. “The only animals happy with the current temperatures are the Siberian tigers,” said Ivan Ivanov,the zoo director.

The gas monopoly,Bulgargaz,halted supplies to 72 big industrial companies and forced dozens of producers of glass,steel,beer and metal to shut down. The crisis has also caused many bakeries to raise the price of bread by 10 percent,to about 48 cents,forcing many poor families to do without.

The crisis has been met with particular bitterness here. Russia and Bulgaria share the Cyrillic alphabet and the Eastern Orthodox religion. Russia is Bulgaria’s second-largest trading partner,and the Russian energy giant Lukoil is one of Bulgaria’s largest investors.

Last week in Varna,a Bulgarian port city on the Black Sea,residents protested the gas stoppage in front of the Russian Consulate,holding banners that read,“Stop Putin’s Gas War.”

Alexander Bozhkov,a former Bulgarian deputy prime minister who is currently chairman of the Center for Economic Development here said,“Because of our history,we have many reasons to like the Russians. But this crisis will make a lot of people rethink this,” Bozhkov said. “We are the biggest victims of this crisis,and it is a huge embarrassment. Russia thinks it can get Bulgaria and the western Balkans back into its orbit any time,but they may have miscalculated the fallout from forcing people to shiver through the cold.”

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