How Two Balkan Rivals Are Messing With Europe's Sense of Time

(Bloomberg) -- Why should a Portuguese teacher or a German baker care about a political scuffle in the Balkans? It could make them late for work.

The longstanding dispute between the two ex-Yugoslav remnants Serbia and Kosovo usually centers around ethnic tension and the former’s refusal to recognize the latter’s sovereignty. But their inability to get along is wreaking havoc in European power grids: Kosovo’s unauthorized use of Serbian electricity has squeezed the frequency in networks across the continent, causing electric clocks -- including the kinds found on many microwaves and ovens -- to fall as much as six minutes behind.

The episode highlights the hurdles Serbia and other countries in the Western Balkan states must overcome if they want to join the European Union in 2025. The world’s largest trading bloc has demanded they improve rule of law, overhaul their economies and invest in crumbling infrastructure that’s been neglected since Yugoslavia’s bloody 1990s implosion.

The disagreement over power is a case in point. It has caused the frequency to drop below the standard 50 hertz that the interconnected European grids need to operate smoothly, angering operators from Denmark to Switzerland who are signaling that they seek damages for disruptions in their national networks.

“This average frequency deviation, which has never happened in any similar way in the continental European power system, must cease,” the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity said in a statement this week. “The question of who will compensate for this loss has to be answered.”

Clocks Delayed

Kosovo’s unauthorized use of electricity deprived the European network of 113 gigawatt-hours in January and February, ENTSO-E said. That caused a delay of almost six minutes in older electric clocks steered by electricity frequency, which must at all times be kept around 50 hertz.

Serbia’s operator said the incidents ended on March 3, although the dispute persists. At its heart is Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after NATO forces drove Serbian troops out of the territory. To make progress in its EU candidacy, Serbia must “normalize” relations with its former province which still has a sizable ethnic Serb minority. President Aleksandar Vucic has pledged to propose a solution to mutual relations in or around April.

Those relations must extend to practical issues, such as electricity flows. At the moment, Serbian grid operator EMS remains formally responsible for balancing the grid in both territories, but it’s accusing its Kosovo counterpart KOSTT of withdrawing electricity from the common European network without authorization.

Balancing System

KOSTT doesn’t dispute that it’s taking the energy. It blames Serbia for refusing to acknowledge that it’s a separate entity, thus preventing it from operating independently. And that obstructs its efforts to set appropriate tariffs, KOSTT says.

“The lack of financial income undermines the financial sustainability of the company,” KOSTT said in an emailed statement. “EMS, as the leader of the block, is responsible for balancing the system towards the continental Europe transmission operators.”

Kosovo’s power supply still relies mostly on the infrastructure developed when it was part of Serbia, the largest of six former Yugoslav republics. Kosovo’s generation capacity can’t match the current demand, which leads to frequent outages. The London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development called its power deficit “endemic.”

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