Eastern Europe Faces Freezing Temperatures and Russian Gas Cut-Off

With freezing temperatures across most of Europe, there was heated anger, especially in Eastern Europe on Wednesday, about the suspension in natural gas deliveries from Russia through Ukraine. The gas crisis comes at a difficult time for leading politicians, especially in Bulgaria, where some 2,000 people demanded the government's resignation on Wednesday over allegations of corruption.

The shortages of natural gas from Russia added to anger of protesters who braved the cold in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, to demand the resignation of the country's Socialist-led government.

They were upset that Bulgaria remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, despite being a member of the European Union.

What began as a peaceful protest of students, farmers and medical workers in front of the parliament building, turned violent when masked youths threw snow and rocks at police, and vandalized several police vehicles.

Officials say several people were injured, including six police officers. Dozens of protesters were detained.

Bulgarians are not the only East Europeans frustrated during this unseasonable cold winter. There have been reports of people freezing to death across the region, which is heavily dependent on Russian gas via Ukraine.

Russia says neighboring Ukraine is holding up the transport of Russian natural gas to Europe. Moscow cut all gas supplies to the West last week in a pricing dispute with Ukraine. Kyiv blames Moscow for the supply disruption.

In Hungary, where reserves are running low, officials say some 40 people have died this month from frigid temperatures, often because heating systems do not work properly due to a lack of natural gas pressure.

More deaths have been reported across Eastern Europe, where many people are now searching forests for wood to use as heating fuel.

Fearing more deaths, Hungary's government has ordered municipalities and energy companies not to cut off people who do not pay their gas bills.

In Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, people expressed their frustration with their leaders on Slovak television. "They have to give the natural gas to us," one middle aged bus driver said. "Because it is too cold. A lot of people can freeze to death."

Slovakia's Prime Minister, Robert Fico, who visited Moscow on Wednesday, has not ruled out restarting a Soviet-era nuclear reactor despite European Union protests as gas reserves are expected to run out by the end of the month.

People in Bratislava told Slovak television they need energy -- nuclear, if necessary. "We need to have normal temperatures at home this winter," one man said. "So if they want to restart the nuclear reactor and keep the operation within international rules, I think it's okay," he added.

Slovakia, which depends on Russia for nearly all of its natural gas imports, has already declared a state of energy emergency to conserve its gas reserves. That has forced several companies including French and South Korean car makers, to suspend production.

Similar measures have been introduced in Hungary and other East European countries.


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