(Bloomberg) — The lights go off and the French chanson music suddenly cuts out. The morning buzz inside the Image Café in the Kosovo capital of Pristina goes quiet. It’s 10 a.m and the power is out.
Arbnor Gashi, a server, fetches a small outdoor generator and switches it on. The power is enough to restore the music, but the mood among the politicians, lobbyists, and businesspeople who frequent the café has already soured. No more coffee for two hours, except what’s already getting lukewarm.
“Some people get angry, but it’s not my fault,” said Gashi, 22. “It’s a political problem. No other country has these power shortages in Europe, just us.”
Kosovo is among Europe’s poorest countries and is no stranger to turmoil and hardship. Insufficient power production has long plagued the nation, which still lives in the shadow of its conflict with Serbia. But the start of the continent’s first rolling blackouts this month could turn out to be a prelude for richer parts of Europe.
While governments have already earmarked a whopping 280 billion euros ($278 billion) to mitigate the energy crisis for households and businesses, ministers from the UK to Bulgaria are stepping up planning for shutdowns to conserve resources during winter in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
In Pristina, a city of about 200,000 people, and across Kosovo the power goes off for 120 minutes every six hours, sparing only critical infrastructure such as hospitals and some industries.
The crisis has ratcheted up pressure on Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who opponents blame for failing to take action to avoid the outages. His economy minister, Artane Rizvanolli, said Kosovo was already experiencing power cuts following years of inadequate investment in the energy industry, leaving the country in worse shape to face the latest crisis. The national power company imposed similar blackouts last winter.
For many of Kosovo’s 1.8 million citizens, having to go without electricity at regular intervals is further evidence of the political and economic sclerosis they’ve found themselves in since the war with Serbia ended in 1999 and the nation declared independence nine years later.
“For many months in many years after the war, power was scarce and everything ran on generators,” said Jlirjana Rakovica, 61. “The sound of them — it’s like going back to after the war. Nothing is in your hands again.”
Rakovica has been making hand-made silver jewelry at a small downtown store now run by her daughter. Customers don’t mind shopping there during powerless hours — halting the air conditioning in the summer heat — and have gotten used to stepping outside to see her intricate handwork in the daylight, she said.
But the situation still leaves Rakovica in despair. “We pay taxes,” she said. “We were supposed to have a normal life, not having these problems 22 years after the war.”
Kosovo’s largest companies are also being hit. Devolli Corporation’s mattress-making factory employs 2,500 people making 2.5 million mattresses a year and is the country’s biggest manufacturing exporter. It’s now coping with the power cuts with the help of three external generators, though the business will be impacted if they continue or — worse still — are lengthened.
That may lead to a reshuffling of shifts and increased costs, said Albina Qarri, a product development manager at the company, which is a key employer in the town of Gjakova which saw the biggest number of casualties during the war.
Indeed, the persisting blackouts may curb growth in the $9 billion economy this year, now forecast at between 2.5% and 3% by the central bank. Those could be revised lower, Sokol Havolli, the vice governor, said in an interview in Pristina this week.
Rizvanolli, the economy minister, said that citizens will get a breather from the outages as early as next week because one of the units of Kosovo’s sole coal-fired power plant should come back online after maintenance.
But the respite is bound to be brief. Blackouts will be back once the temperature cools and may be extended by hours at a time in the worst-case scenario during the daytime, Rizvanolli said, visibly shaken by the pressure she’s facing.
She’s concerned also that Kosovo’s limited budget resources — the nation relies on income from remittances from its diaspora — will have a tough time securing power deliveries as prices skyrocket.
“We are in competition here with the richest European countries for the limited power that is going to be available during this winter,” she said at her office in Pristina. “We can easily imagine what the outcome is going to be.”
As demand increased and power prices rose earlier this year, the government curbed power supply for crypto mining companies and started awareness campaigns urging citizens to save power and do laundry and other chores in off-peak hours.
Opposition parties say that was never going to be enough, accusing the government of mismanagement.
“This is an overture of what’s coming, this will definitely be a very harsh winter,” said Memli Krasniqi of the opposition PDK party. “At the end of the day people are left on their own, they don’t have the support of the government.”