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Yushchenko, EU Want Russia To Return To Negotiating Table

Ukrainian President Yushchenko (file photo) (epa) 1 January 2006 -- Ukraine's president, facing a gas cutoff in the depths of winter, said on 1 January that he will ask Russia to return to the negotiating table to resolve a pricing dispute.

Viktor Yushchenko told journalists he will call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring Russia's state-controlled Gazprom monopoly back for more talks on how much Kyiv should pay for its natural gas.

Gazprom cut off Ukraine's gas supplies on 1 January after negotiators failed to resolve a dispute over Moscow's demand for a fourfold increase in prices.

Gazprom is still pumping 360 million cubic meters a day through Ukraine to Western European markets. The Russian monopoly has accused Ukraine of starting to siphon gas from transit lines.

Eduard Zanyuk, spokesman for Ukraine's Naftohaz gas company, denies the claims. "At the moment, Ukraine is completely fulfilling its commitments to European consumers regarding gas delivery and will do its best to fulfill those commitments," he said.

Western Europe imports 25 percent of its gas from Russia, mostly via Ukraine. Poland and Hungary have already said the cutoff is affecting their gas supplies. Hungary says gas deliveries fell by more than 25 percent on 1 January.

The new European Union president, Austria, said on 1 January that four EU states have written to Russia and Ukraine urging a resolution to the dispute.

The energy ministers of Austria, Germany, Italy, and France made the appeal in joint letters sent to Moscow and Kyiv on 31 December, before Russia's state-controlled Gazprom monopoly cut off gas supplies to Ukraine.

The letters say steady gas supplies to the EU should continue, "irrespective of whether Russia and Ukraine reach an agreement" in their dispute over Moscow's demand to more than quadruple the price Kyiv pays for gas.

Relations between Ukraine and Russia have been strained since Kyiv's Orange Revolution ushered in a Western-leaning president, Viktor Yushchenko.

Ukrainian officials say that is why the Kremlin is punishing Kyiv with a huge price increase while giving a much cheaper rate to countries far friendlier to Moscow, like Belarus.

Despite Gazprom's assurances that supplies will remain as normal provided Ukraine does not dip into them, many European countries are setting up contingency plans, and energy officials from the European Union are to meet on 4 January to work out a common approach.

The row has also cast a shadow over Russia's presidency of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized nations, which began today.

Moscow wants to present itself as a reliable energy partner, and any supply problems could undermine Western trust.


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