After weeks of controversy over Ukraine's gas debt to Russia, a new demand from the State Duma may threaten to turn the issue into a nationalist cause. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld says reported remarks by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma could also inflame passions as winter approaches and Russian consumers face higher prices for gas.
Boston, 21 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has come under new pressure in the past week to take action against Ukraine for its overdue gas debts and the diversion of fuel crossing its territory.
Dmitrii Rogozin, chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, called in a radio interview for Russia to take Ukraine before an international court for failing to pay an estimated $2 billion in debts for gas supplies.
Rogozin's statement came after the Duma heard testimony that thefts of Russian transit gas could increase because of the closing of five nuclear power reactors in Ukraine, Russian news service www.lenta.ru said.
The criticisms were apparently aggravated by reports of an interview with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine. Kuchma allegedly told Der Spiegel, "Moscow is pumping over 130 billion cubic meters (of gas) per year to the West through our country. What's an odd billion siphoned off compared to that?" Kuchma reportedly added that gas thefts from transit pipelines take place under orders from the government to ease pressure within Ukraine's energy sector.
Such statements, if accurate, could be highly damaging to Kuchma's credibility in light of his promises to crack down on diversions of Russian gas. Even if they prove false, they are likely to inflame Russian sentiment against Ukraine's perennial habit of accumulating arrears for gas supplies.
Credibility is a major problem for Kuchma and whatever hope for a settlement that may emerge after this weekend's shortened CIS summit in Yalta, given the past rescheduling of Ukraine's previous gas debts. Earlier agreements have always postponed the question of how to keep Ukraine from consistently using more fuel than it can afford.
It is also unclear that the threat of taking Kyiv to an international court will help. Itera, the trading partner of Russia's Gazprom, filed suit against Ukraine in a Swedish arbitration court last year, but it was still forced to cut supplies in August due to lagging payments from users other than electricity plants.
But the statement by Rogozin suggests that there may be a stronger push to raise the gas problem as a domestic political issue before the winter heating season sets in. The involvement of Rogozin appears to drive the gas problem beyond the realm of finance toward deeper concerns about Russian power.
Rogozin, a founder of the now-defunct Congress of Russian Communities and an early backer of Aleksandr Lebed, has consistently championed the causes of Russian minorities in the near abroad. In this case, his anger over Ukrainian debt seems to stem from the implication that Kyiv has been defying Moscow by using Russia's gas without paying for it. At the same time, gas customers in Russia have been forced to pay higher rates or face the threat of cutoff.
Russian frustration with the Ukrainian problem comes during a week that has highlighted the limits of Putin's power. After months of showing his ability to control Russia's governors, its oligarchs and its tax rates, Putin has found his most recent troubles to be far less tractable.
In contrast, the theme of the past week has been powerlessness. Putin's government has appeared powerless to prevent the bombing in Moscow's Pushkin Square or to punish its perpetrators, powerless to rescue the nuclear submarine Kursk, and powerless to halt the Islamic uprising in Central Asia despite recent security pledges within the CIS.
In this atmosphere of dashed hopes for Putin's image of resurgent power, Rogozin has now raised the problem of Ukraine as a nationalist challenge for Russia and a test of political will.
At the same time, Rogozin's one-time political ally, Yurii Boldyrev, the head of the state accounting chamber, has been pursuing an investigation of Gazprom and Itera. Boldyrev is demanding a strict accounting of the income that is due to the Russian government as a matter of reform.
These two threads of reform and Russian nationalism now seem likely to converge on the problem of Ukraine's gas debt, which is the largest outstanding obligation within the CIS.
Previous Russian leaders have also proved powerless to solve the problem because of the need to cross Ukraine in order to reach European markets for gas. But the old puzzle is a new test for the unpredictable Putin, who combines the forces of reform and nationalism on his own. Russia has already indicated that it is looking for ways to build bypass pipelines around Ukraine.
Eleven years ago, the issues of interstate debts and energy costs drove Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to transform the economic structure of Comecon by demanding cash in world prices for Russian oil. If Ukraine were faced now with a similar decision on gas, it would be completely unprepared. But recent weeks seem to have sounded a series of warnings for Ukraine. Pressure may now be building on Putin to show that he is still in control.