Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Macedonia in chaos as power company starts cutting debtors off

Skopje - Macedonia plunged into chaos as the power company ESM started cutting off debtors - including government ministries, courts and municipal authorities in the capital Skopje, reports said Friday.

Scuffles broke out as outraged people tried to prevent ESM workers from approaching the switchboards, many of them illegally drawing electricity from the grid.

One of the incidents occurred earlier this week in the Macedonian Supreme Court, which is among the debtors.

'Half of the country is without power,' a headline in one of the newspapers said.

The Vienna-based energy company EVN, which acquired a 90-per-cent stake in ESM last year for 225 million euros (290 million dollars), confirmed the measures against debtors and said they were necessary to protect the grid ahead of the cold winter days.

'If we don't curb the theft of electricity and if we fail to start reducing the debts, we will have dramatic supply problems no later that this winter,' spokesman Stefan Zach told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Local reports say that ESM is owed 40 million euros by clients used to ignoring their energy bills.

The Macedonian Government alone, with virtually all its ministries, has an 11-million-euro backlog.

Among those who owe money is also the army headquarters and the chiefs of staff.

Many debtors have reacted quickly since the cuts started last week and started paying, with ESM often agreeing to reschedule the debts, reports said.

The thousands of households owing money - many of them poor - were spared so far, at least directly. Indirectly they were hit - like in Bitola on the country's southern border with Greece - where the local bread factory had to shut down.

The problem of non-payment of electricity is also common in neighbouring Serbia and Albania, both of which have so far refrained from taking drastic measures - but neither of Macedonia's two neighbours has so far privatized its energy sector.

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