Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Union Warns of Ruin by Electricity Cuts

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Macedonia's farmers union warned Monday that threats by an Austrian power company operator to cut off supply to customers behind on bill payments could endanger tens of thousands of rural households.

Austrian energy company EVN AG bought a 90 percent stake of the Macedonian state electricity company last year for euro225 million ($290 million), and began cutting off power to businesses which had failed to pay their bills.

"We'e not asking EVN to write off debts from manufacturing industries which buy farmers' goods, but to postpone cuts until October. If not, the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers' households will be threatened," farmers' union chief Veljo Tantarov said.

So far, cuts have included government departments, courts, municipal offices and even street lights in parts of the capital Skopje and other Macedonian towns. Also hit are factories processing farm products in the towns of Bitola and Negotino.

The previous state-run operator generally avoided cutting off supplies despite amassing large debts.

EVN's action followed warnings to government institutions and ordinary customers that tens of millions of euros (dollars) in debts had accumulated, EVN spokeswoman Lence Korpuzovska said.

"We won't say what the total debt is, because of company policy, " Korpuzovska told the Associated Press. "It's not the company's job to consider the social aspect (of power cuts) ... It is up to the government, if it is willing, to cover part of the bills for the poor."

She said power cuts were required to recover debts and protect the grid ahead of the winter.

The power company is owed euro40 million ($52 million), including euro11 million ($14 million) from government agencies, according to local media reports.

Debtors also include the country's military.

Power cuts could also affect two major mobile phone operators, as well as national and local TV stations.

Many ordinary households have so far been spared supply cuts. Worst affected would be parts of western Macedonia, home to the country's ethnic Albanian minority.

Relations between many minority leaders and the government remain tense following a 2001 insurgency by ethnic Albanian guerrillas and violent rivalries between minority factions seeking a role in the government.

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