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Energy Crunches, Shortages Make This Worst of Bulgarian Winters

January 31, 1991

BLAGOEVGRAD, Bulgaria (AP) _ This city’s 80,000 people know the cost of the Persian Gulf War and Soviet economic chaos. Severe food and energy shortages caused by instability abroad have given them the worst of all winters.

Residents on Thursday once again lined up for hours in sub-zero temperatures to buy bread and milk - the only food on sale here for days.

″Half the people in line can’t buy anything because the shops are even running out of those two items,″ said Rosita Borisova, a mother of two children aged five and 10.

Mrs. Borisova feeds her children mostly from stockpiled supplies of white beans and potatoes. ″Greengrocers’ and butchers’ stores are just totally empty,″ she sighed.

All but 2 percent of the goods produced at Blagoevgrad’s 78 factories were destined for the Soviet Union, which is canceling the orders, said senior city administrator Alexander Balabanov.

In addition, Bulgaria must now pay hard currency for Soviet energy. The Gulf War took care of hoped-for supplies from Iraq, which owes this debt- ridden Balkan nation of 9 million people an estimated $1.3 billion.

In Plovdiv, the nation’s second most populous city, half the 370,000 inhabitants went without heat for a week in January. Old foe Turkey eventually rescued the city with emergency oil supplies.

Relief is barely in sight. Bulgaria stopped all repayment of its $11 billion foreign debt last March.

In order to win vital help from the International Monetary Fund, prices on Friday will more than double for about 600 basic foods and consumer goods.

Bulgaria begged the European Community this week for $1 billion, saying failure to secure the money ″will certainly prove the last straw that breaks the back of the Bulgarian reform process.″

Nationwide strikes brought down the government of Socialists, or former Communists, last November. The anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces now controls two of the three key economic ministries in a coalition headed by an unknown, nonpartisan lawyer Dimitar Popov.

While international economists may welcome Friday’s liberalization of all prices except energy, the move brings no joy to Blagoevgrad.

In the 1960s, this area of southwest Bulgaria benefited from Communist efforts to make it a showcase of Socialist industry.

Now, Soviet orders and the Comecon trading bloc have collapsed, and the once-rich agricultural region must depend on other areas for all its food supplies, Balabanov said.

Industrial production dropped 10 percent in Blagoevgrad in 1990. This year, the region’s 40,000 industrial workers expect to produce even less.

″Unemployment is 5 percent, and it’s going to rise rapidly when many enterprises with no market are forced to close,″ said Emil Lovdzhiev, a city council member of the anti-Communist Nikola Petkov Agrarian Party.

He sees hope in returning city dwellers to farms in the countryside.

But that could take years, and the naturally fertile soil that traditionally made Bulgaria a food exporter has been badly polluted by Communism’s industries.

Privatization is another solution. But in Blagoevgrad, as elsewhere, only 5 percent of the 800 private companies founded last year actually produce anything. Most are in the more lucrative service sector.

In any event, there is no energy for manufacturing.

Several schools have closed for lack of heating oil. The city hospital had reserves for just one day’s heat this week before getting deliveries from Pernik, a town 50 miles away, in exchange for cigarettes.

Emil Mihailov, a local journalist, said public transport shut down completely for three days last week. It is still sharply curtailed and outlying villages remain without bus service.

Many just hope for better days.

After waiting more than two hours for bread, pensioner Vasilka Janeva said, ″If we could only survive this winter...″

She seemed to lack the energy to finish her sentence.

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