Like clockwork, when the frosts and first snows arrive in Ukraine, Gazprom starts talking about Ukraine's gas debts
. The debts become veiled threats, then the veil slowly comes off and the Russians turn the gas off. As they once did in 2006, terrifying Europe more so than Ukrainians, who somehow always manage to find ways of keeping warm.
As always, the debt is in the billions. Gazprom says it is $2.4 billion. Naftohaz, the Ukrainian state gas company, claims the debt is much smaller, $1.3 billion, and furthermore the money is not owed directly to Gazprom but to the notoriously secretive intermediary company RosUkrEnergo, 50 percent of which is owned directly by Gazprom.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko promptly turned to his Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and instructed her to clear up the gas issue within five days. She, no less promptly, dispatched a delegation for talks
Ukrainian-Russian gas relations are opaque and deeply mysterious. No one seems to know what kind of contracts are drawn up, for how long a period, and under what terms. The only certainty in these relations is the regularity of payment and debt conflicts.
The "Kommersant Ukrayina" newspaper writes that during recent gas talks between Gazprom and Naftohaz, the Russian side suggested that Ukraine waive its gas-transit fees across its territory for the next 14 months in lieu of the existing debt.
Now, Russia is threatening to take Ukraine to court over this latest "debt." Tymoshenko is hoping for a one-or two-month extension on the payment. She's also reassured her fellow Ukrainians that no one would go cold this winter. Currently, Ukraine has a record 17.5 billion cubic meters of gas in its repositories. That's a lot of gas
Gas prices are historically indexed to the price of oil. Oil has fallen from $150 a barrel in July to well below $50. Gas prices, however, have not budged.
Gazprom boss Aleksei Miller even forecasts that gas prices will hit record highs
within the next three years. He did, however, pledge that in the first half of 2009, gas prices will decrease. Maybe that will bring down Ukraine's debt next year. Because you can certainly count on there being a debt.
-- Irene Chalupa