The negative effects of the war that has been going on for about seven months in Ukraine have begun to be felt in daily life due to the austerity measures taken by the European Union (EU) member states. While Europe is struggling with the energy crisis; it is a matter of curiosity how the Western Balkan countries will be affected by this crisis and how they will ensure their energy security.
In this context, Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the views of Energy Expert Srgjan Vidoeski evaluating the negative effects of the energy crisis on the Western Balkan countries.
- We see that the energy crisis that started after the Russia-Ukraine War began to be felt more as we move towards the winter season. European countries are taking measures to alleviate high gas and electricity bills in the energy crisis. So, first of all, how do you evaluate the energy crisis in the current process?
The dependence of Europe to the Russian gas became obvious as soon as the War in Ukraine started and the EU leaders applied sanctions on Russia. Initially, it seemed that the European countries were hoping to find only a temporary solution and alternatives for the Russian gas. The hopes were that the War might end soon enough. Thus, the EU started purchasing much pricier liquified gas from countries such as Qatar and the USA, among others, probably hoping it would be a short-term solution. But as the War continued, the reserves were dwindling, and the newly purchased gas continued to be much more expensive, which essentially was one of the reasons for triggering the energy crisis.
A number of experts predicted the energy crisis might be over by the time winter comes. However, as the War intensified, it soon became obvious that it might last longer than just a few months, as half a year is already passing. The European leaders stay determined to defend the values on which the EU itself lies and keep applying the sanctions on Russia, and even though they would exclude the gas initially, it was a matter of time before Russia found a technical excuse to severely limit supplying the West. At the same time, Russia started focusing on securing sales on the Chinese and Asian markets. This new positioning also forces the EU to look for reliable alternatives for a longer term, and we see efforts and increasing activities for negotiations more permanent contracts with other suppliers, while making sure the infrastructure responds to the change.
Nevertheless, it is still uncertain if the European countries will manage to replace the Russian gas fast enough and prior to the heating season and the winter, for which the leaders already started to prepare the public describing it as potentially the toughest winter after the World War II. The energy transition that Europe has been so proud of, now it is facing one of its biggest challenges, as discussions and calls for re-opening already closed off thermal capacities and investing in nuclear ones are increasing. All in efforts to find answer to the two most burning questions for Europe at the moment: will there be enough heating and electricity this winter, and how much it will cost.
- It is seen that the Balkan countries are also negatively affected by the process since they are dependent on Russian gas. For instance, while Kosovo experienced daily power outages, North Macedonia declared a state of crisis in the energy field. How does the energy crisis affect the Balkan countries?
The Balkan countries are already experiencing the energy crisis heavily. North Macedonia has been in a state of energy crisis for over a year already, and in both North Macedonia and Kosovo, the people experience dramatic increases in the energy and electricity prices. The energy crisis hits all aspects of the industry, and many enterprises started struggling to pay their electricity bills. This in turn causes the prices to increase on a day-to-day basis and the inflation rates are exceeding 15%.
For the households, the situation becomes devastating. Especially since the countries of the Western Balkans do not have the standard of the EU countries, and their savings and overall financial security are frail. Therefore, the effects of the energy crisis and the inflation over the regular people will most probably have a long-term damaging effect, to cause losing, savings, homes, and more tragically their health and well-being. Furthermore, the governmental assistance does not seem to make much of a difference.
However, as the prices are rising everywhere too, it is a matter of time before the remittances dwindle as well, which would only increase the negative effects over the economies of the Western Balkan countries. The final and most probable result of the current crisis is that the poverty line would move dramatically. The current situation will be pushing many people to live below the poverty line, and even if the energy crisis potentially ends soon, the devastation over the fragile middle class from the region is unescapable.
- Leaders of the Western Balkan countries, who came together at the Open Balkan Summit held in Belgrade, called for support to the EU in the management of the energy crisis. Even Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama criticized the EU and asked it not to repeat the same mistakes of the Covid-19 pandemic. Do you think that the EU can help the Balkan countries in this regard while they are currently looking for a solution to the energy crisis?
The EU most certainly is assisting the region, as most of the countries are candidates for a future EU accession or are somewhere War in Ukraine is only increasing the need for the EU to take better care of it’s in the process. The neighborhood and bordering regions, and the leaders should be able to see this clearly if they are smart enough. The Union has been helping with ad hock assistance and some emergency grants; however, it remains focused on finding solutions for its own member states and its citizens. This simply means that the Western Balkan countries might wait some time before a more substantial EU assistance or overall lowering of the prices and the living cost occurs, which should motivate the governments to become more proactive.
- What steps should the Balkan countries take for the solution and security of the energy crisis?
In such difficult times the countries should seek out solutions while maintaining existing partnerships, continue to show solidarity with each other, and continue to work together with the EU for more finding long-term solutions. The regional leaders are now witnessing the effects of not investing on time in the old energy capacities nor in building new ones, making the countries energy depended, yet with abundance of energy resources. Discussions are ongoing about where to start and how to accelerate any potential upgrades of the existing capacities.
Moreover, the citizen energy movements in the region are drastically increasing. A number of people and local communities are investing in production of their own electricity and heating from solar power and biomass. In a middle of an energy crisis, this is an excellent opportunity for the governments of the region to expand local and citizen energy production by providing adequate subsidies. And most importantly by facilitating or removing bureaucracy and procedures as much possible, by preventing corruptive contracts, and by securing fair trade of prices for the surplus produced by the citizens. Finally, the countries must start investing in new capacities and new importing alternatives, for both electricity and other fuels, which on a mid-term and long-term would prevent the severity we see nowadays if the energy crisis continues, or a new one happens.
- In addition, can Western Balkans might grow to be a primary pathway that helps alleviate some of Europe’s energy security troubles in the medium term?
The answer to this question heavily depends on the vision and leadership the Western Balkans political leaders will show in the next period. The potential is there, mostly due to the natural resources available to the countries, and particularly since we see the EU trying to negotiate more imports from other eastward countries, such as Azerbaijan, that could make the Balkans crucial transitional point.
Srgjan Vidoeski is an independent researcher in the areas of environmental and energy governance. He specializes in energy policies, citizen energy, energy justice, and RES project development and management.