Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– European Union monitors arrived in Kiev Friday, amid international pressure on Ukraine and Russia to settle their dispute over natural gas prices that has effected shipments to at least 20 countries.
Moscow promised to resume deliveries to Europe via Ukraine when gas flows are monitored. Yet, there were no signs taps opened Friday, January 9, at a time when Eastern Europeans are facing a harsh winter as already a dozen people have frozen to death in freezing temperatures.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made the decision to halt deliveries Wednesday, January 7, when being told Ukraine was stealing natural gas destined for Europe to make up for shortfalls, after Russia closed the taps to its neighbor because of a pricing dispute.
During talks Thursday, January 8, officials from the two nations said they were willing to start pumping gas to Europe and would accept having monitors check on the gas flow – but they were less confident about solving the root causes of the dispute.
This worries former Soviet satellite states such as Hungary that are heavily dependent on Russian energy. Large firms and factories have been ordered to use less natural gas amid fears reservoirs could run out.
Hungarian Energy Minister Csaba Molnar told reporters the government is closely monitoring the situation and the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. “If there will be a lack of natural gas deliveries Hungary may have to order the government’s first level category of consumers, meaning large companies and factories, to cease their production,” he said.
Gas reductions come at an already difficult time for companies during the worst economic crisis in decades. One example is the meat processing plant ‘Kometa ’99’ in the Hungarian town of Kaposvar, about 190 kilometers southwest of Budapest. Its deputy director Tibor Hollosy said pigs in his neighborhood will live a bit longer.
“We still have some gas and my company cannot stop production completely. However we are already considering reducing the number of pigs slaughtered,” he explained in his office, not far from the carcasses of recently slaughtered animals. “The company is also considering how to use the production facility for other activities,” Holossy said.
Thousands of Hungarian residents in the nearby area of Komlo, a former mining town already suffering from recession and mine closures, are already feeling the effects of the gas shortage.
Pensioner Imre Deak said he is among the people in the region anxiously looking at their heating systems in rundown apartments. “When I woke up it felt cooler than usual in his room,” he added. “My heating system does not work well. My, which is needed for heating, has difficulty starting because of low gas pressure.”
Despite its difficulties, Hungary’s Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany has pledged his country will sell “two million cubic meters of natural gas daily” to neighboring Serbia, where supplies are running low amid freezing conditions.
In Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina, which has a significant Hungarian minority, several towns have been unable to make the changeover from gas to crude oil. Hundreds of thousands of people were without regular heating Friday, January 9, as temperatures have dropped.
There have been similar reports in other Eastern European and Balkan countries, including in Bulgaria where dozens of schools have closed because of the sub-zero temperatures. In Bosnia, officials said thousands also spent the night without gas. Most electrical heaters in the capital Sarajevo have been sold.
At least 12 people froze to death in Eastern Europe, mainly in Poland, and Romania.
Spokesman Radek Honzak of the European Union’s current president, the Czech Republic, said the bloc is closely monitoring the situation.
“This is a serious problem. And we need to find a solution immediately. Or rather the two sites of the dispute need to find a solution and immediately restore full supplies of gas into the Europe Union according to existing commitments,” he said.
Whatever the outcome, nothing was expected to change for a man and his faithful dog in a Budapest bus station. He is among at least tens of thousands of homeless people in Eastern Europe, including workers of closed factories, for whom there is not always a shelter.
They have reconciled themselves with living in harsh winter conditions. (BosNewsLife’s NEWS WATCH is a regular look at key news developments impacting the Church and compassionate professionals. This BosNewsLife News story also airs on the Voice of America (VOA) network. www.voanews.com).