Running On Empty And Praying For Heat

We're stuck. My work partner and photographer, Bob Stern, and I drove here to Vilnius, Lithuania, from our home base in Tallinn, Estonia, in my battered, 10-year-old, Soviet-made Moskvitch. We came to report on Lithuania's energy crisis, but now we can't leave. The car's tank is nearly empty, and there's no gasoline to be had at any price--even in dollars. So we wait in an absent friend's shabby, two-room apartment in Vilnius.

It's freezing in here. I don't know the exact temperature, because thermometers are hard to come by in the Lithuanian capital. But my shoes crunched over frozen puddles tonight as I stumbled through the dark, narrow streets of the age-old Jewish quarter. The roads are dark because the city fathers have turned off the streetlights to save electricity. I no longer drive anywhere. I either walk or join the crush of people riding the trolleybuses that slowly creak around Vilnius. At least the warmth from the press of strangers' bodies provides a brief respite from the elements.

Apart from the dearth of gasoline, there's very little central heating, and most of the time there's no hot water. And if you cook with bottled propane, as many people in older buildings and in the countryside do, you're out of luck: There isn't any. Unless you have a portable electric stove, your meals must be prepared over an open fire.

HOG-TIED. When I moved to Estonia from Connecticut in the fall of 1990, nobody in the Baltic countries thought much about energy. I used to leave the badly fitted windows of my apartment open on December nights because it was too hot indoors. And my hot-water taps scalded me when I wasn't careful. Travel was ridiculously cheap--up to a year ago, airfares and train fares to cities in the region cost just a few dollars in rubles. Taxis were an affordable luxury for almost everyone, and I could fill my Moskvitch's 35-liter tank for under $1.

But those days are over. In less than six weeks in Lithuania this fall, gasoline prices doubled twice, to about $1.15 a gallon. That's impossibly high, given the average monthly wage of $18 in talonas, the interim currency Lithuania has introduced to replace the ruble. Then, supplies simply disappeared overnight. A 15-minute taxi ride in Vilnius now costs about $2, up from 40 in the summer.

The current energy shortage is the worst I've experienced anywhere during my stay in the Baltic states. Even locals say conditions today are worse than in March, 1990, when Moscow launched an economic blockade after Lithuania declared independence. Now, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which depend almost entirely on Russia for energy, are caught up in nasty wrangles with their neighbor over how much to pay for it. The Baltic governments balk at Russia's demands for world market prices for oil and natural gas that once cost a song. But they are hog-tied. Yes, Estonia has a filthy oil-shale mining industry, and Lithuania produces electricity at a dangerous, Chernobyl-type, nuclear-power plant near Ignalina, but that's about it. Natural-gas and oil pipelines keep the region firmly tied to Russia.

Because of the fight over payment, the Russians stopped oil deliveries to the Mazeikiai refinery in northern Lithuania on July 1 and cut supplies of natural gas in half in September. Recently, gas quotas were reestablished, but disputes over who owes what haven't been settled. All this has a direct impact on life in Vilnius--and on its politics. Lithuanian head of state Vytautas Landsbergis, who led the country to independence, accuses Russia of orchestrating the energy crunch in order to drive him from office. On Oct. 25, in the first elections since Lithuania won independence, Landsbergis' Sajudis Party won just 20% of the vote. The Democratic Labor Party, led by former Communist Party chief Algirdas Brazauskas, got 44%. He will likely have less frosty relations with Moscow than his predecessor did, which should help warm shivering Lithuanians.

BITTER WIND. For me, at first, the lack of heat and the sporadic hot water weren't a problem. But as temperatures started to plunge, so did my mood. First, the authorities turned off the hot water on weekdays. Then, they realized they wasted too much energy firing up boilers every weekend, so they switched them on every other week. By the time it began snowing in October and a bitter wind stung my ears, I longed for the comforts I once took for granted.

Now, it's getting to be too cold to work. People presenting live shows from Vilnius' TV studios wear overcoats on camera. Politicians in Parliament also keep bundled up. The school day has been shortened. I myself find it hard to think in temperatures below 32F. A few weeks ago, during an interview in a frosty building with Algimantas Ivasauskas, executive secretary of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, my brain went blank. My Lithuanian assistant, Lina Blotnyte, who was having difficulty translating because of the cold, quit talking. Ivasauskas also fell silent. We stared at one another and laughed.

The interview was slowly cranking back into gear when we heard a ground-shaking rumble outside. We rushed to the window and saw trucks loaded with former-Soviet Army tanks straining uphill to the train depot.

"At least they're going in the right direction this time," Ivasauskas said. His comment put the cold in perspective.

FREE JET FUEL. Reporters usually avoid becoming victims of the news they cover. I never thought my Moskvitch would run out of gasoline in Vilnius. I should have been forewarned when I started an interview in an unheated office one bitter morning and my source announced that he had just seen the mayor of Vilnius walking to work with an electric space heater under his arm. If his honor didn't have the right connections, nobody did.

So, Bob and I are trapped until we can procure enough gasoline to drive to Riga, Latvia, via the Lithuanian town of Siauliai--a 500 kilometer trip. In Siauliai, we hope to interview people who heat their homes for free with jet fuel dumped for years by the Soviet military at an air base there. The land is so saturated with fuel that it's possible to dig a few feet into the ground and scoop it up from underground pools where it has collected. But today, we searched for two hours in vain for gasoline.

Now we are huddling in our friend's drafty apartment. We already gave up our own rented place, thinking we would be on our way by now. Fortunately, our friend is the proud owner of an ancient, Soviet-made space heater decorated with fake coals that glow as the heater clicks and hums. We sit here, in layers of sweaters and scarves, as the glow spreads over our shivering bodies.

Tonight, Bob and I will forget about privacy and sleep next to each other in all our clothes. Only one thought fills my mind: The real Baltic winter, when temperatures plunge to zero and lower, is still to come.

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