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Rising energy prices across Europe lead to protests in the Czech capital of Prague

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

With temperatures plummeting in Europe, tensions are heating up over the skyrocketing price of electricity. Russia's war in Ukraine has left vulnerable countries who up until now had been relying on Russia for energy. And now they're struggling to find alternatives as their citizens grow frustrated. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from the Czech capital of Prague.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS POUNDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Protesters waving Czech flags and beating on drums interrupt the serene surroundings of the Prague castle, perched on a hill overlooking the spires and alleys of this medieval city. Tourists gawk and snap pictures. Protester Libuse Svecova waves her flag in response.

LIBUSE SVECOVA: (Through interpreter) The energy prices are unbelievable here. This government is destroying us. Energy companies think we're sheep, just accepting these high prices while they increase their own salaries.

SCHMITZ: Only a few hundred people show up to this weekday protest, but weekend demonstrations over the past month have attracted tens of thousands of angry citizens demanding the government do more to lower their energy bills. They're also railing against Ukrainian refugees and European sanctions on Russia. Government officials say organizers are part of the Kremlin's disinformation campaign, whether they know it or not. But according to Europe's Household Energy Price Index, the Czech Republic does have some of the highest prices for energy in Europe. People are paying nearly 10 times more for electricity than they were a year ago. Outside the city's electric company, customers brace themselves for sticker shock as they line up to pay their bills. Seventy-five-year-old Mariana Volna says she's doing whatever she can to reduce her consumption.

MARIANA VOLNA: (Through interpreter) I've changed all my bulbs to LEDs. And I only cook vegetarian because it requires less time and gas.

SCHMITZ: Before Russia's war in Ukraine, the Czech Republic relied on Russia for nearly all its natural gas. It's been this way for nearly a decade. In that time, the Czech government did entertain buying from other sources, but at every juncture, it chose to maintain total reliance on Russia.

YAROSLAW MIL: Some people were lazy. Some people were incompetent. Some people didn't care. Some people didn't care because they don't want to work.

SCHMITZ: Yaroslaw Mil is former CEO of CEZ, the country's largest utility. He says the current Czech government is far more competent. Since the war began, it successfully replaced Russian natural gas with gas arriving from elsewhere in Europe.

MIL: Fortunately, the new government was really acting very, very fast. It's a really good, very good move. Quite frankly, it's a brilliant move.

SCHMITZ: These new gas contracts mean Czech storage facilities are now 90% full, enough for around two months at current consumption rates.

RENE NEDELA: This winter, we think that we can manage, I would say, not easily. But we can manage it.

SCHMITZ: Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry Rene Nedela is helping manage the country's new energy plan, which includes setting a cap on energy prices and incentivizing households who use less energy.

NEDELA: If you are motivated and if you will reduce, you know, your consumption by more than 20%, then we will cover the whole cost.

SCHMITZ: But Czech economist David Marek is concerned about the country's long-term energy future. He says government's fix is a good short-term solution, but the Czech Republic needs something more permanent.

DAVID MAREK: But the problem is that it could take us three, four, five years. We can survive this winter. But the main question is, what about next?

SCHMITZ: Back in front of Prague's electric company, retiree Lida Faitova stands in line to pay her bill. She says if electricity costs get too high, she'll move to her cottage in the countryside and burn wood she cuts herself for heat. But she says she supports cutting off energy if it comes from Russia.

LIDA FAITOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "All these higher costs," she says - electricity, inflation and so on - "if this is the price for peace in my country," she says, "then I'm ready to pay that." Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Prague. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.