Energy crunch hits East bloc. Squeeze could change way region's economies are run

Romania has banned almost all private-car travel and restricted the sale of light bulbs. East Germany has run short of coal. Poland has retained its gas rationing. Eastern Europe faces an energy crisis.

A winter cold wave has highlighted the shortages, which represent one of the region's major long-term problems.

Unlike the West, Eastern Europe escaped the severe shocks of rising energy prices during the 1970s. Thanks to an agreement signed in 1975, the East Europeans pay the average of the last five years' world prices for deliveries of Soviet oil. Until the early 1980s, this system ensured supplies at subsidized prices.

When oil prices tumbled last year, however, the East Europeans began to feel the pinch. Experts now say they are paying, on paper at least, as much as $25 a barrel, compared with the world price of around $18.

This squeeze is putting pressure on the East Europeans to change the way they run their economies. Planners throughout Eastern Europe say up to 60 percent of economic growth between now and the end of the century must come through efficiency gains alone, and not through the increased use of raw materials as in the past.

Success is spotty, at best. Although the West has developed energy-saving techniques and invested in energy-saving equipment, the East has not. A recent visit to Warsaw illustrated the consequences of this. Even as the thermometer dropped well below freezing, many apartments felt like saunas. There was no way to regulate the aging radiators - except to open the window.

According to a report last year by the United States Congress's Joint Economic Committee, the East Europeans' large trade deficits with the Soviet Union reached some $2 billion in 1982. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviets have been telling their allies that the deficits must disappear.

These tensions have been aggravated by both natural and man-made disasters. A two-year-long drought in the Balkans and the southern Soviet Union, combined with a November fire in a Soviet hydroelectric power station, reduced electricity supplies throughout the region. So did the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which is an important source of electricity for Hungary and Bulgaria.

The East Europeans are pushing full speed ahead with ambitious nuclear energy programs. At Hungary's Paks nuclear center, plant manager Gabor Vamos explained that his plant uses a safer water-cooling system than the Chernobyl-style graphite setup. Mr. Vamos and other East-bloc officials argue that their energy problems necessitate an increase in the number of plants in the region from 18 at present to 50 by the year 2000.

Other East-bloc efforts to produce energy carry different risks. In a desperate effort to keep domestic coal supplies from falling, more low-grade dirty brown coal is being mined and burned throughout the region, fouling the air.

A graphic example is the northwestern Czech town of Most, where the old city was razed to make way for a coal pit. Most's 60,000 people now live in new apartment blocks next to a gaping brown abyss more than a mile long and 300 feet deep. They say they suffer from the haze of sulfur dioxide coming from the pit.

The immense efforts expended to produce more energy are matched by Draconian measures to save fuel. After keeping electricity prices stable for 20 years, Hungary has raised tariffs by at least 5 percent a year since 1979.

In the bloc's other less market-oriented economies, administrative measures are favored. At the Moser crystal factory in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia, manager Jiri Novak said workers received 100,000 crowns (around $5,000) for developing a method for the factory to use 10 percent less gas.

Often these kinds of encouragements are insufficient and are replaced by outright coercion. For more than five years now, Polish drivers have had to make do with 24 liters of gasoline a month.

The situation is even worse in Romania. In an attempt to cope with the annual winter energy shortage, a series of drastic decrees was recently announced in Romanian newspapers. The use of private cars was banned outside the capital city. In Bucharest, cars with odd-numbered license plates are allowed to operate on odd days, even-numbered cars on even days. The use of electric heaters was barred in offices and private homes between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. Street lighting was ordered turned off after midnight. Similar restrictions were in place in Bucharest last February. Cinemas closed at 5 p.m., restaurants at 9 p.m. People shivered in their barely heated and dimly lighted apartments as residents reported common blackouts - apparently imposed indiscriminately by the authorities to save energy.

With car use restricted, thousands of city dwellers were forced to trudge two, three, even four hours through the snow-filled streets to get to work.

For many Romanians and Western diplomats, the measures didn't even make economic sense.

``You cut electricity in homes and all the food in the refrigerators rots,'' said one man. ``That costs more money than the little energy which is saved.''

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