Protests in Bulgaria and Kosovo have led to a review of billing practices and overcharging.
By Muhamet Brajshori for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 25/02/13
Citizens have submitted more than 60 complaints against electricity supplier representatives in Serbia they said tampered with readings on metres. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]
Regional governments are responding to claims of electricity bill overcharges after demonstrators took the streets to protest billing practices and increasing electricity costs of up to 200 percent.
In Kosovo, hundreds protested in front of the Kosovo Electricity Corporation (KEK) headquarters last week demanding a revision of the billing process and called on the authorities to investigate consumer claims of overcharges.
Pristina resident Sadri Syla, 59, said his January electricity bill was 123 euros, compared to 55 euros the previous month, and such charges are a common occurrence.
"It is not possible to have that huge a consumption in my household of three. Even if we use electricity 24 hours, seven days a week, it will still not equal to the figures they charge," Syla told SETimes.
The Department for Economic Crimes and Corruption Investigations, in co-operation with the prosecutor's office initiated a preliminary investigation into the complaints. Depending on the findings, the department will take action in accordance with the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code.
Kosovo police are also investigating.
But KEK said the bills reflect uncontrolled consumption in wintertime, when the electricity cost is much higher and a winter rate is in effect.
"KEK has made hundreds of appeals for electricity not to be used for heating. Citizens are charged as much as they are spending," Viktor Buzhala, spokesman for KEK, told SETimes.
Civil society organisations like Pristina-based FOL Movement disagree, saying the higher bills are not only a result of electricity prices increases and the higher winter rate but also of lump sum billing -- or paushal -- charging for an approximate quantity, not a real amount, of electricity consumed.
"Lump sum billing has now become a KEK phenomenon. It is reflected in the queues at the KEK complaints counters," Petrit Zogaj, executive director FOL Movement, told SETimes. "Citizens also complain the digital electrometres KEK is installing do not measure electricity consumption accurately."
Buzhala said lump sum billing is done only if KEK teams have no access to the electricity metres inside houses.
"Precisely for this reason, regulations were made to extract metres outside so KEK will have access at all times as is required by law. Otherwise, lump sum billing is extremely rare," Buzhala said.
Bulgarians claim three foreign electrical supply companies charge more than the 14 percent increase in the price of electricity. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]
Citizens said KEK investigates complaints, but it first requires residents to pay their bills, which many can not afford to do.
In Serbia, electrical supplier representatives often change the reading when they inspect the electronic measurement devices without customers being present and without reaching an agreement with them as is legally required, according to Mladen Afirovic, lawyer for the country's Association for Consumer Protection.
"This creates huge problems, but also gives the consumers a basis to issue complaints," Afirovic told SETimes.
Boris Lacanin, 31, resident of Zrenjanin, said the Electrical Power Industry of Serbia (EPS) replaced his old device but did not put a seal on the new one.
"This device registered electricity consumption worth almost 2,000 euros for five months which is not possible. I live here together with my wife, mother and grandmother, and we simply can not spend that quantity even if we want to," Lacanin told SETimes.
Lacanin said three years of erroneous readings rendered him a 4,000-euro debt after EPS applied penalties. EPS cut Lacanin's electrical supply eight months ago when he could not pay the sum the utility demanded.
In Bulgaria, overcharges prompted hundreds to protest in 15 cities across the country.
The violent protests led Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to resign, saying that he had done everything possible to meet the protesters' demands. He said that he could not remain in power following the bloody clashes between protesters and police in Sofia.
"Every drop of blood is a stain for us," Borisov said in parliament on Wednesday (February 20th), adding that he would not "participate in a government under which police are beating people."
The three main power distributing companies -- the Czech companies CEZ and Energo-Pro as well as Austria's EVN -- increased the electricity price by about 14 percent last July.
But protesters insisted their bills for the month of December were much higher than the announced 14 percent, making many unable to pay.
Moreover, only 40 percent of the amount charged is for actual consumption, they said. The remainder includes a premium for green energy and charges for seven grid services.
The three electrical supplier companies pointed out the bills are high because December was colder than a year ago, and the bills now cover a period of more than 30 days.
Nevertheless, consumers have submitted thousands of complaints in the past week to the three companies. Of the several hundred EVN considered, it was discovered citizens were overcharged in at least 226 cases.
Protestors also demand the Sofia government break the contracts with the three electrical supplier companies and nationalise them.
"The state must participate actively in the economy -- as an owner, investor and regulator," opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergey Stanishev said.
President Rosen Plevneliev, however, said nationalisation is not the path to lower prices.
"What is needed instead is liberalisation and a national programme for investments in measures to improve energy efficiency," Plevneliev said.
Correspondents Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade and Svetla Dimitrova in Sofia contributed to this report.