Bosnian utility company Elektroprivreda has warned of “increasingly uncertain” power supplies to customers amid strikes by thousands of coal miners over work and pay in the Balkan state of around 3 million.
State-owned Elektroprivreda Bosnia-Herzegovina’s director, Admir Andelija, told reporters on November 24 that the company had already been forced to shut down two units at a thermal power plant in Tuzla, in the north of the country.
Thousands of employees of the company’s seven mines stopped work the previous day in support of their fellow miners protesting in the capital, Sarajevo, over government phase-out and restructuring plans for the coal industry.
The Western Balkans is plagued by some of Europe’s — and the world’s — worst air pollution.
Seventy-five percent of Bosnia’s electricity comes from coal-fired power stations, and a 2050 commitment to shut down the industry has set the stage for a dramatic economic and cultural shift.
Union leaders said on November 24 that miners would maintain “disobedience” that is likely to prevent the production of coal.
Elektroprivreda is owned by the so-called entity government of the Muslim and Croat Federation that makes up half of Bosnia, along with the Serb-majority Republika Srpska.
The company said in a statement that it had been forced to operate all three blocks of a thermal power plant in Kakanj to make up the shortfall from Tuzla but that the coal stockpile in Kakanj was sufficient only for “the next 15 days.”
Temperatures have plummeted in southeastern Europe with the approach of winter, with temperatures hovering around freezing.
Bosnia’s political institutions are mired in years of crisis, as well, as various factions still governed under a 26-year-old peace agreement to end the Bosnian War maintains power-sharing along mostly ethnic lines, with an international high representative helping ensure some aspects of government.
Federation Prime Minister Fadil Novalic on November 23 asked the speaker of the entity’s parliament to organize an extraordinary legislative session to discuss miners’ demands.
He also urged federation Energy Minister Nermin Dzndic and Elektroprivreda boss Andelija to “urgently provide the government with information regarding the situation in the mines and miners’ requests” that could be sent to inform lawmakers.
Dzindic reportedly invited representatives of the 7,000 or so miners to negotiate.
But Sinan Husic, president of the federation’s Mine Workers’ Union, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service late on November 24 that miners were still awaiting a response to their demands from the federation’s government.
He said the union “had not received a decent answer” by late afternoon.
“Our demands were not met,” Husic said. “We are no longer waiting, we are returning to the coal mines. But we have active ‘workers’ disobedience,’ supported by the Miners’ Union. There is and there will be no coal production in the coal mines. No production until all our requirements are met.”
Dzindic called some of the miners’ requests “logical and we will accept them,” but added, “Some are illogical and we need to talk.”
Some of the demands focus on work and compensation, while others reportedly call for leadership changes at the mines’ operators.
“It’s impossible to replace seven CEOs from seven coal mines at once,” Dzindic said. “That would lead the system to collapse.”
A negotiating team has been formed to talk to representatives of the miners that includes company and ministry representatives.
The federation-level government plans to restructure indebted coal mines, whose debts are said to amount to around 460 million euros, amid a longer-term shift to cleaner energy.
The heads of six of the seven mines recently warned of difficulties and the possibility of bankruptcy, which they said was “inevitable” without restructuring, and resulting “disturbances” in the power network, the economy, and “social problems.”
The restructuring plans by the government are part of a plan to transition from heavy reliance on coal to renewable energy sources and to reduce the number of workers to 5,200.
Earlier this year, representatives of both sides agreed to the plan.
But newly announced work regulations that reportedly include slashed wages are seen by the unions as an abrogation of collective bargaining.