Crisis chills Europe's ties to Russia
A cold, divided, and annoyed Europe struggles to find a way to prevent Russia from turning down the heat. Eastern Europe, meanwhile, continues to shiver.
With parts of Eastern Europe now going without heat because of the lingering natural gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine, officials in Europe say they must do more to prevent Russia from having so much control over the continent's thermostat.Skip to next paragraph
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In Bulgaria, which has relied on Russia for almost all its gas, the crisis has closed dozens of schools and factories. Thousands of residents in key cities such as Varna and Burgas are without heat and cooking gas, according to Bulgarian media. The crisis caused a run on electrical heaters in shops around the country, but overuse of the devices triggered a short blackout in the capital, Sofia, on Wednesday.
"I don't know why the Russians are doing this to us. We were friends," says Dana Ivanova, a Sofia news vendor. Ms. Ivanova adds that she no longer removes her coat after coming home from working on frigid city streets.
The European Union has now dropped its hands-off approach to resolving Russia's acrimonious, week-old gas war with Ukraine. After a meeting with officials of Russia's Gazprom and Ukraine's Naftohaz in Brussels Thursday, European Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger told journalists that Europe expects Moscow and Kiev to settle their dispute or suffer severe consequences. "The immediate problem is for those who have lost their gas supplies," he said. "But in the medium and long term, the problem is with those who are found not to be reliable suppliers. ... That means of course that customers will have to think about alternatives."
Until this week, the EU tried to maintain a "neutral" position on the central dispute between Moscow and Kiev. But with Austria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and EU-suitor states Croatia and Bosnia faced with cut-offs, this has not been possible. EU monitors are now going to verify gas shipments between Russia and Ukraine, and EU Commission president Manuel Barroso warned both states that further cutoffs would damage relations.
The lack of a common European policy on energy in the face of subzero temperatures and a Russian shut-off is creating a clamor among smaller EU states that feel literally left out in the cold. The EU has no common approach on energy, with each state fending for itself against Moscow. As in 2006, when Moscow threatened to shut off the valves, the EU is in full-crisis rhetoric mode – but pressure is building for more than talk. Bulgaria Wednesday threatened to restart a nuclear reactor whose closure was part of a deal to allow the Balkan state into the EU.