Stefan Markovic slipped and stumbled on Belgrade’s icy streets and cursed both the Russians and the Ukrainians for the bad air he’s breathing.
“Those damned Soviets!” he shouted. “First they destroyed us with their communism. Now they create more misery. They even poisoned the air we breathe.”
A thick cloak of smog choked the capitals of Serbia, Bosnia and Hungary this week as residents and businesses resorted to burning oil, wood and coal — anything that might help them ward off the midwinter chill amid a natural gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine that has cut off supplies to Europe.
EU Energy Commissioner Andries Pielbags and Czech Industry and Commerce Minister Martin Rima were expected to attend a summit on the Russia-Ukraine gas war in Moscow yesterday afternoon, said Tomas Bartovsky, a spokesman for the Czech EU presidency.
Moscow has called on European leaders to attend the summit, but Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said the EU should speak with one voice.
Ukraine countered with by convening a meeting with European officials on Friday. Ukraine doesn’t oppose a summit but insists it not be in Moscow.
The dispute is now stretching into its third freezing week and the fallout has been severe: at least a dozen confirmed deaths, hundreds of factory shutdowns that could cost billions in lost productivity — and millions of people left to shiver in unheated homes.
As if trembling in subfreezing apartments wasn’t bad enough, a winter storm encased Belgrade in ice. Doctors urged the elderly to stay indoors, warning that their limbs could snap like firewood if they fell.
But bitter cold drove 70-year-old Marija Jovanovic onto the glistening streets.
“I cannot sit at home and shiver,” she said. “Walking keeps me warm.”
In Bosnia, Serbia became an unlikely savior by sharing some of its own precious gas supplies.
No one missed the irony: Sarajevo froze during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, when Serb forces laying siege to the city shut off its gas, water and electricity.
A week ago, Boris Tadic, Serbia’s Sarajevo-born president, personally intervened and arranged for an emergency gas delivery.
But there was a potentially deadly side to the gift. Authorities cautioned that there could be explosions if residents didn’t properly relight heating systems.
Within hours, the first blast dampened Sarajevo’s newfound relief. Five members of the Hadrovic family were injured, including 44-year-old Amy Hadrovic, who suffered burns so severe she had to be brought to a clinic in Germany for skin grafts.
Rabija Ljutovic, 72, wasn’t taking chances.
“I called the gas company and will wait for their team to come and turn this thing on for me,” she said. “No need to blow myself up.”
Across eastern Europe, the crisis hit businesses and factories already pinched by the global recession.
At the usually bustling Munja battery factory in Zagreb, Croatia, there was only silence. Machines were turned off earlier this week after Croatian authorities decided they’d better switch off gas to industry and keep people as warm as possible in homes and schools.
“The workers are at home. Where else would they be?” said Ivan Miloloza, the manager, whose factory is losing 2 million kuna (US$370,000) a day. “There is no production, so we sent them home to wait, to rest.”
“We’re like a hotel at peak season that has its fridges full of food, but no stove to cook on,” he said. “It’s worse than during the war.”