Winter bites deep into the heart of old republics: Fuel crisis brings worst Christmas in living memory to former Soviet states

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IN TBILISI, the Georgian capital, the authorities have introduced bread rationing and soldiers guard bakeries to prevent riots. In Ukraine, children wear overcoats and gloves in classrooms and the government has stopped daytime television broadcasts. In Belarus, thousands of industrial workers have been ordered to appear at their factories only once every two days because the state lacks fuel and materials.

For millions of people across the former Soviet Union, this Christmas season is the worst in living memory. Some republics, such as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, continue to suffer from the effects of brigandage and prolonged ethnic warfare. Most have been dragged low by hyper-inflation, which translates into unaffordable food prices and gangster-run black markets.

Almost all republics are experiencing catastrophic shortages of energy that have been made worse by the exceptionally cold autumn and early winter. Snow and sub-zero temperatures came at least a month early this year, but Russia, the region's principal oil and gas supplier, was unable or unwilling to meet the demand.

Russia's Fuel and Energy Minister, Yuri Shafranik, complained that other former Soviet republics owed Russia 366bn roubles ( pounds 200m) for oil. But even if the Russians wanted to maintain oil deliveries to their neighbours, they would find it difficult since production is expected to fall to 350 million tons this year from more than 400 million in 1992.

Russia once subsidised most Soviet republics with cheap fuel, but now it is charging prices near world market levels and those which cannot pay are being cut off. Russia is also under pressure to keep up exports of gas and oil to the West so that it can earn enough hard currency to control its foreign debt problem.

Among the worst-hit republics is Ukraine, which was once an agricultural and industrial pillar of the Soviet Union but which now cannot provide hot running water for many of its 52 million people. Ukrainian inflation runs at 70 per cent a month. The karbovanets, a temporary currency that is in even sicker condition than the Russian rouble, fell to 27,000 to the dollar last week compared with 6,000 in August.

Ukraine's energy crisis is so severe that officials fear supplies will run out in the middle of winter. The Education Ministry is considering whether schools and universities, where staff are already on reduced wages, should double or triple the length of the winter holiday to save fuel.

For the same reason, authorities have extinguished 'eternal flames' at an important war memorial and introduced power cuts for homes, offices and factories. 'Apart from controlled cut-offs of electricity, there have been and will be uncontrolled black-outs because of the disastrous state of the energy system,' said Ihor Makovetsky, the head of energy services in the western region of Lviv.

So cold were residents of the Black Sea port of Odessa last week that municipal authorities sent a telegram to President Leonid Kravchuk urging that gas supplies be redirected from factories to apartment blocks. A Ukrainian news service, Ukrinform, reported that fuel shortages had caused the deaths of 10 people when home-made heaters attached to stoves released poisonous gas.

The energy crunch has political implications, since many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who voted for the republic's independence in 1991 are now disillusioned with a state that makes them wash in cold water in winter. Russian autonomy movements are picking up support in the Donbass, the industrial heartland of Ukraine, which had close economic ties with Russia in the Soviet period.

Georgia's crisis is equally deep, with citizens having little or no heat, telephone service, transport or running water. A litre of poor-quality petrol costs 40,000 coupons (50p), the average monthly wage for those who still have jobs. Tbilisi's streets are strewn with motionless trolley buses, abandoned because there is no power to generate the overhead cables.

Russia itself is not immune to this winter's woes. Inflation continues to run at more than 10 per cent a month. Oil refineries owe the equivalent of several billion dollars in unpaid debts to Siberian producers, who have responded by letting their oil wells stand idle. In addition, coalminers, angry at not receiving their wages, have held sporadic strikes in recent weeks.