By COLLEEN BARRY, VESELIN TOSHKOV and JUSTIN SPIKE, Associated Press

MILAN (AP) — Across Europe, rising energy prices are testing the resolve of ordinary consumers and business owners who are caught between the continent’s dependence on cheap Russian energy and its revulsion at President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Governments are trying to replace Russia’s energy supplies, aware that their regular payments are funding a war that has left thousands of civilians dead and widespread destruction. They also face an agonizing showdown with Moscow over its demands for ruble payments and the possibility of Russia blocking supplies, as it did for Bulgaria and Poland last week.

European Union countries import 40% of Russia’s gas and 25% of oil, and the current EU timetable does not provide for energy independence from Moscow for five years. As the atrocities unfold, the EU seeks to toughen sanctions.

The EU’s executive board on Wednesday proposed phasing out imports of crude oil within six months and refined products by the end of 2022. It must be approved by all 27 member countries, which will be a battle because some are more dependent on Russian oil than others. . Yet oil is easier to substitute than natural gas, which is used to generate electricity and energy industries.

Political cartoons about world leaders

political cartoons

In a poll of 1,230 random voters released last month by German public broadcaster ZDF, 28% said the country should immediately stop imports of natural gas and oil, even if it means supply problems, while that 54% said this should only happen if the supply is largely secure, and 14% opposed a ban.

It shows how the economic blow is increasingly falling on consumers and businesses, who have already seen natural gas prices start to soar last summer. Some of their stories:

AID TO THE POOR IN MILAN

Struggling residents of one of Italy’s poorest neighborhoods on the outskirts of Milan line up twice a week for help to make ends meet. More and more, they come with utility bills.

Since energy prices started to climb, a kind panel of three women who adjudicate on requests from the parish of Santa Lucia de Quarto Oggiaro has another resource to help those in need: an energy package funded by the energy company A2A which offers up to 300 euros per year to families. who cannot pay their higher utility bills. A hundred families have qualified since September.

Alessandra Travaglini, 54, peaked even before the war as her electricity bill doubled to more than 120 euros. She has been unemployed as a home health aide for two months and hopes the parish can help her even more.

There is not much room to reduce power consumption.

“I don’t cook a lot. I only run the washing machine in the evening or on weekends. I take short showers, use the oven maybe once a month and iron once, maybe twice a week,” Travaglini said. “I’m afraid. ”

She fears that if Italy cuts off Russian energy or Moscow cuts off supplies, her life will become even more difficult.

“I think they have to buy it from Russia, for now,” she said. “But for me, Italy has adopted the wrong strategy, because we have become enemies. I think that if Mr. Putin presses the button, we will be the first targets” of any nuclear attack.

Roberto Bertolini cannot cover his last fortnightly electricity bill of 180 euros on his monthly income of 550 euros, working only three hours a day caring for disabled adults.

War seems particularly close for Bertolini. Upon retirement, the 66-year-old plans to join his wife in Hungary, which borders Ukraine. He doesn’t think Italy should buy gas from Russia.

“These sacrifices must be made,” he said. “When I see these images, I change the channel. It’s too horrible – women raped, children assaulted. These are not easy images. Not showing them is not fair. But for me, I just can’t watch.

BELT TIGHTENING IN BUDAPEST

Kritztian Kobela-Piko, a gas fitter and plumber in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, sees his job intimately linked to his country’s relationship with Russian energy. And with the capital only a few hundred kilometers (miles) from Ukraine, war is not a distant reality.

The 41-year-old independent contractor installs gas boilers, using materials that have become exponentially more expensive. He said he sympathizes with the victims of war and would be willing to make personal sacrifices if it meant Ukrainians could better defend themselves.

“At most, I’ll have to tighten my belt a bit,” Kobela-Piko said. “But these sacrifices are nothing compared to the situation of people living in Ukraine. I think this sacrifice is the minimum, something I would do anytime out of solidarity.

Since the start of the war, many customers have converted their home heating systems to electricity, uncertain about the future of natural gas.

While Kobela-Piko believes tougher sanctions on Moscow are the right strategy, he said Hungary’s geopolitical situation makes it almost impossible to break its dependence on Russian energy. Hungary, a former member of the Soviet bloc, gets 85% of its gas and more than 60% of its oil from Russia.

Pressuring a country on which Hungary depends for its energy resources “is a very unpleasant situation”, he said.

RUSSIAN GAS FOR GERMAN GLASS

Carletta Heinz calculates the impact of a gas cut for the 400-year-old glass business she took over from her father in the 13th generation – and for communities at the heart of an eastern glass district Germany.

The Heinz-Glas group, which manufactures bottles for international cosmetics and perfume brands, is due to close a gas installation in the town of Piesau. This would ruin the tanks which must remain above 900 degrees Celsius (1,650 degrees Fahrenheit) to prevent the molten glass from solidifying. If Piesau has to close, it cannot be restarted and production will move elsewhere.

The company has already switched to electricity at its headquarters in nearby Kleintettau to reduce carbon emissions, but it still needs gas for some processes there.

If a gas boycott leads to government-enforced rationing, Heinz said, Germany must ensure glassmakers get at least 70% of their current energy to keep tanks warm and avoid equipment losses. generalized. In the event of a severe shortage, European legislation obliges governments to cut off gas to businesses to save homes and hospitals.

Beyond her business, she worries about the impact on glass companies near the border between the Thuringia and Bavaria regions, which employ 5,000 people directly and another 8,000 indirectly.

Job losses could mean higher carbon emissions if production shifts to countries with fewer environmental protections, said Heinz, 38.

“In Germany, we are more developed when it comes to environmental protection. Glass will still be needed and would be produced in other countries, which for our planet would certainly be worse,” she said.

“I’m just of the opinion that you need alternatives first. Naturally, I’m for anything that hurts Russia and helps Ukraine,” Heinz added. mind and see that we have a future, because if our industry is ruined, our country will not be able to help anyone else.”

BACK ON SANCTIONS IN BULGARIA

Nikolay Belev’s earnings as a construction worker in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia are not keeping pace with gas and oil prices. And he is not prepared to endure any more Russian sanctions, which he considers inappropriate and which will only increase inequality in the EU’s poorest member state.

“These sanctions are supposed to weaken the Russian economy, but in the end they backfired on my country and especially on low-income people, who are the real victims of these sanctions,” Belev said. He also complained that rising energy prices had driven up the costs of his materials – by up to 30% in the past two months.

Bulgaria, a nation of 6.5 million people, was once one of Moscow’s closest allies during the Soviet era. Now a member of NATO and the EU, it is still heavily dependent on Russian energy. Its only oil refinery belongs to Russia’s Lukoil, supplying nearly two-thirds of the country’s energy needs.

The only nuclear power plant, generating more than a third of Bulgarian electricity, runs on Russian uranium.

The current centrist coalition government is trying to embark on a more clearly pro-Western path by looking elsewhere for energy, including gas from Azerbaijan or liquefied natural gas via a gas pipeline with Greece. The LNG option will result in higher prices.

For Veselina Marinova, an editor who lives with her 83-year-old husband and mother, paying more for energy is a small sacrifice in the face of civilian deaths in Ukraine.

“Nothing can justify military aggression against a democratic country,” she said. “Of course, my family’s income will suffer because of the war-fueled inflation. I am always aware that a serious crisis is looming and that life will become more difficult. However, I believe that we must stay on the right track.

Toshkov reported from Sofia, Bulgaria; Spike from Budapest, Hungary.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.