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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 01:03 GMT
Balkans plagued by part-time power
Electricity pylon
Balkans electricity is haphazard
By the BBC's Bill Hayton

Power cuts of up to 20 hours a day are causing severe problems for people and businesses in several parts of the Balkans.

A combination of bad weather and a decade of war and under-investment has caused a crisis in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.

And electricity systems in other countries are facing still more problems as they work close to capacity and try to cover their costs from consumers unwilling to pay market rates.

In parts of Albania you might get only four hours a day, in Kosovo four hours of electricity are followed by two hours or none and in Montenegro power cuts happen every day.

Bomb damage in Serbia
Serbia's infrastructure is still burdened by Nato bombing damage
Serbia is importing more than a $100m worth of electricity every year and its system is close to breaking.

A decade of war, international sanctions and a lack of investment have left the Balkans electricity system in a terrible state.

But this winter has been particularly cold - there is a big demand for electric heating, but not enough supply.

Faulty connections

Albania once exported electricity, but now it cannot meet its own needs.

"The country has been hit by a severe, prolonged period of drought," says Martin Burdett, editor of the newsletter, Power in Eastern Europe.

"Some 95% of electricity is derived from hydropower and as a result of insuffficent rainfall, water levels in the reservoirs have dropped and not produced enough electricity for the country's demand."

I think there's a lot of impatience, consumers expect electricity to be supplied 24 hours a day at low prices which of course is not possible

Martin Burdett
He says this has meant that Albania has had to look for imports to try to meet as much demand as possible in the country but this is problematic and costly for Albania.

There is surplus electricity in the region - Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are all selling power to their neighbours - but much of it cannot get to where it is needed.

Serbia is the hub of the regional distribution network but it is still suffering the legacy of under-investment and Nato's bombing campaign in 1999.

The other republics of former Yugoslavia have still not worked out how to share their resources efficiently. Some projects are underway to improve the situation but they won't make any difference in the short term.

"It's going to take a lot of time for power sectors to change the situation which has been in decline for a decade or so," says Mr Burdett.

"I think there's a lot of impatience, consumers expect electricity to be supplied 24 hours a day at low prices which of course is not possible. It's something they've been used to but they're going to have to learn that in order to have secure or regular supply they're going to have to pay."

Political chill wind

Bulgarian nuclear plant
Some governments sell electricity at up to 40% less than cost
State-owned companies have traditionally charged consumers less for their electricity than the cost of generating it - up to 40% less in some countries. But now government budgets are being squeezed and companies being privatised.

The only way to square the circle is to put up prices to consumers. That is already underway in Bulgaria and Serbia and other countries are following suit.

It is politically very difficult, because higher charges will hit the poor hardest and provoke protests against governments who have plenty of other problems to deal with already.

And none of it will bring any benefit to those who are currently without electricity.

Governments and consumers have little choice but to sit out the cold weather as best they can.

Consumers will get some relief in two or three months' time when temperatures begin to rise again.

But by that time the increased electricity bills will have started to arrive and it will be the turn of governments to feel the chill wind of popular discontent - particularly if there is little to show for the extra charges for some time to come.

See also:

02 Jul 01 | Business
Yugoslavia's shattered economy
19 Oct 01 | Americas
Rebuilding Albania
23 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Yugoslavia
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Albania
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