MOSCOW — If scientists are bent on calling the overall weather mayhem of the past few years “global warming,” more power to them, but this winter the term looked like a huge misnomer to the population of Eurasia — from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Shivering in their homes with night temperatures outdoors hitting minus 40, Russians, Georgians and Poles cursed not only the cold spell but also the weatherman’s vernacular, totally maddening in the freezing environment.
The 2006 cold spell hurt the region more than all the recent terrorist attacks combined: Homeless people froze to death; roofs, overburdened with snow, collapsed, killing people inside; illnesses were provoked or worsened.
Industries and businesses suffered, too. Bad weather confined the polyglot tankers carrying Russian oil to Western consumers to the Black Sea. Russia cut back on its normally lavish shipments of gas exports to Eastern and Central Europe via pipelines, using up the resources to heat its own cities and thus involuntarily aggravating the plight of Ukraine and Poland.
Vineyards in the Crimea, a subtropical peninsula on the Black Sea now on Ukrainian soil, took a direct hit from the unprecedented cold wave and are said to be devastated, meaning that for several years to come, Ukrainian and Russian consumers of wine and grapes will have to buy elsewhere, straining import budgets.
Sturdier gardens up north were maimed, too, and this means that, in the spring, farmers will find many trees withered and dead, and themselves deprived of income badly needed income in struggling post-Communist rural communities.
No matter where acts of God, or natural calamities, strike — in a Third World country or the postindustrial United States, recently hit with worst hurricane season in history — they test their respective governments. No country can be made disaster-proof, but the government could have cushioned the consequences of practically any natural calamity if it had bothered to do so.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government has been blamed for failing to repair old levees — breaches in which eventually caused the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans — and for bad city planning in general (the only sections of the city not reached by the deluge had been built by the French in the 18th century).
Given the damage it produced, the January 2006 cold wave was bound to bring about angry criticism, too — and of course it did. No one can stop and dissolve an approaching mass of freezing Arctic air, but the town halls surely could have fixed the ancient pipes and power lines that deliver energy to the people. Several neighborhoods in the vicinity of Moscow lost central heating at the peak of the cold spell. As they consisted of apartment buildings without fireplaces, the inhabitants got a taste of what the Ice Age was like.
Buses wouldn’t start; antiquated power grids collapsed and subway trains stopped; cabs were hard to find as their engines stalled, too. Schools wouldn’t cancel classes, subjecting students to torturous commutes resulting in overwhelming fatigue, colds and eventually bad grades.
At least one major international imbroglio grew out of the mysterious explosions along a Russian pipeline and power lines delivering energy to southern neighbor Georgia, which literally froze as a result. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, a populist who came to power two years ago, said the explosions were the work of Russian secret agents and called Russia treacherous and evil.
True, there is no love lost between Moscow and Tbilisi since, under Saakashvili, Georgia began military cooperation with the United States. Georgia also hosts a major Western consortium-owned pipeline that carries Caspian Sea oil to the Mediterranean, completely bypassing Russia.
Although the Kremlin is very angry with Georgia, whether it commissioned the devastating blasts, as Saakashvili claims, is still uncertain. Not that Russian President Vladimir Putin has any scruples to speak of along these lines. An accusation like Saakashvili’s demands a smoking gun, and there is none. Moreover, the northern Caucasus, through which the wretched Russian pipeline runs, teems with terrorist bands of every ethnicity, including the notoriously fierce Chechen jihad fighters, and each has a stake in the Russo-Georgian conflict.
Saakashvili came to power thundering anti-Russian harangues; yet in the two years of his tenure, he has done zilch to provide his nation with a backup energy supply in the event relations with Russia deteriorated. A remarkable negligence, particularly since Georgia sits next door to the Caspian, an up-and-coming exporter of both oil and natural gas.
Russia, especially under Putin, is not a lovely neighbor and does try to impose its authority on adjoining smaller states, but this is exactly why rhetoric is a silly tool to use. It may be satisfying for Saakashvili to call Russia an evil giant, but his heated tirades are not going to make apartments in Tbilisi any warmer. An alternative energy source could have.
Regardless of global warming or global cooling, the cold spells like the last one will come back. So hunker down to faulty pipes and unreliable providers — or buckle up for another rough ride.
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