Talk emptily of diversifying supplies while doing little and relying instead on cosy ties with the Russian gas business. That has been the common energy policy in much of eastern Europe in recent years. The row between Ukraine and Russia that has cut off gas to the region now makes it look a huge mistake.
Bulgaria has suffered the most. It depends on Russia for almost all its gas and is one of the most wasteful users of energy in the European Union. The government is in the hands of the Russia-friendly Socialists,who signed a long-term gas contract with Gazprom. It is secret,which arouses suspicion. The failure to hook the gas network up to other sources,or to build new gas-storage facilities,looks bad. State-owned industries and municipal heating enterprises are required by law to keep oil reserves but have not done so. Some,according to the local media,sold them corruptly,so were unable to switch fuels when gas supplies were cut.
Some private businesses have laid off workers and shut production. Neochim,a maker of artificial fertilisers,says the gas cut-off has cost it 100m ($132m). About 160,000 households in Sofia and other cities lost heating and hot water during a cold winter when temperatures fell below -10ºC. Many switched to electric heaters,overloading the power grid. Fire services say they were lucky not to see any big fires. Teachers had to choose between keeping children in cold classrooms or sending them to cold homes. About a hundred schools shut. Sofia zoo got emergency heating; prisons did not.
Amid the mild panic,most voters blame the government,which had promised that Bulgaria had enough gas reserves for two months. The energy minister complained that supplies were cut without notice,but then admitted that Russia warned him in mid-December. The government is nervous: a decade ago protesters stormed parliament and tried to burn it down. Despite public attempts to blame Ukraine,ordinary Bulgarians reacted differently. Internet campaigners suggested cutting the Russian embassy’s heating. (Serbia has also seen anti-Russian protests.)
Both Bulgaria and Slovakia are threatening to reopen nuclear reactors closed as a condition of joining the EU. That has brought angry threats of legal action by the European Commission and Austria,a fierce critic of Slovakia’s Jaslovske Bohunice nuclear-power plant. Slovakia,which depends on Russia for all its gas,has declared a state of emergency,forcing big energy users to cut consumption-including its flagship foreign carmakers. “We are on the brink of a blackout,” said the economy minister,Lubomir Jahnatek.
When the gas returns,the debate will turn to plans to diversify supply. There is new interest in Nabucco,a pipeline to bring gas from Central Asia and the Caspian to Europe via Turkey. If built,Nabucco would be the only east-west gas route not controlled by the Kremlin. But there is no obvious big source of gas for Nabucco; and Russia’s energy diplomacy has managed to sideline it in favour of South Stream,its own project to bring gas across the Black Sea from Russia to the Balkans. Even Romania,once a staunch supporter of Nabucco,is wobbling. Half its gas imports come from Russia,but its leaders still seem ready to listen to offers from the east.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008