Belgrade: Aleksa Branisavljevic’s apartment is freezing, but his anger toward Russia burns hot.
His every breath a visible plume, the elderly Belgrade resident railed against Moscow on Monday for a standoff with Ukraine that has shut off natural gas supplies to millions of eastern Europeans while those to the west have plenty of heat.
“Russians always gave us nothing but misery. They should never be trusted, as this gas blackmail of Europe shows,” Branisavljevic said.
Mingled with the misery is a sense of betrayal in nations such as Serbia and Bulgaria countries with traditional religious and cultural ties to Russia, but a complicated love-hate relationship with the Kremlin.
Just last month, Serbia sold NIS, its state oil monopoly, to Russian gas giant Gazprom at a discount. Serbian officials were convinced the payoff would be steady supplies. But nearly a week ago, Gazprom halted gas delivery via Ukraine amid a price dispute.
Ordinary Serbs outraged as temperatures plummeted inside their homes at the height of winter burned a Russian flag in protest, and the Serbian government sought emergency supplies from Hungary and Germany.
Overall, the 27-nation European Union relies on Russia for only a fifth of its total energy needs. But its eastern member states, including Bulgaria and Romania, are much more dependent on Moscow for fuel to heat homes and run factories.
Bulgaria, a former Soviet satellite that has distanced itself from Russia and is now the poorest member of the EU, relies almost entirely on natural gas from its former Cold War masters.
For nearly a week, Bulgarians have braved subfreezing temperatures and have struggled to stay warm in unheated homes, schools, kindergartens and offices. And anger is mounting.
“People are fed up with thinking globally but freezing locally,” said Valeri Naidenov, a newspaper columnist.
Even corners of ex-communist eastern Europe with no past alliances with Russia remain heavily dependent on it for energy. Peasants and others who have resorted to chopping firewood blame Moscow for shutting off the gas in the middle of a bitter cold snap blamed for a dozen deaths.
In Hungary, which endured decades of Soviet domination and occupation, Budapest on Sunday issued its first-ever smog alert, blaming the capital’s badly polluted air partly on power plants that switched to dirtier oil after gas shipments from Russia were suspended.
“Hello, Moscow, how shall we survive?” Croatia’s Jutarnji List newspaper headlined Monday, noting that temperatures plunged to minus-20 degrees C (minus-4 degrees F) in the central town of Daruvar.
There’s no love lost toward Russia in Romania, another impoverished EU newcomer, where leaders are urging experts to explore alternatives to Russian gas.
Romania gets about 30% of its energy from Russia not nearly as much as Bulgaria, but enough to create hardship when it’s forced to do without.
“The Russians are at the root of everything bad that happens in Romania,” said David Pop, 47, who recently returned from a construction job in Spain.
“They were and they remain wheeler-dealers,” he said. “We should be more cunning than them and take more gas than we need and store it somewhere, because they will do this again whenever they feel like flexing their muscles.”
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, frustrated residents have been circulating cell phone text messages disparaging Russia in decidedly profane terms their way of letting off a little steam after being caught in the middle.
Some have spent money they really couldn’t afford on electric heating after temperatures plunged to -14 C (6.8 F) in Sarajevo.
“We switched our heating from gas to electricity,” said Snjezana Kordic, a 51-year-old Sarajevan. “We will never again depend on the mood of the Russians.”
So much for any lingering belief in the notion that Slavs inherently look out for one another, said Peter Weiss, a former chairman of the now-disbanded Slovak Communist Party.
“The Serbs and Bulgarians are literally freezing, and the Slovaks fear the same,” Weiss wrote in Monday’s editions of the left-wing Czech daily Pravo.
“Russian politicians like to call themselves brothers ... but the way the business-political dispute of the two largest Slav states goes, it’s another tough blow to the myth.”