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Russia/Ukraine: Pipeline Controversy Continues Amid Renewed Skepticism

Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin has come to the aid of Ukraine following accusations that it has again siphoned gas from Russia's Gazprom. But Chernomyrdin has also been pressing Kyiv harder than ever to share its pipelines and resolve the issue that has raised tensions with Russia for years. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 16 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's new envoy to Ukraine has defended the country against charges that it is diverting Russian gas. But the statement may only raise more doubts about Russia's Gazprom and its role in the near abroad.

Speaking on 14 June at a press conference with Prime Minister Anatoly Kinakh in Kyiv, Viktor Chernomyrdin said Ukraine is no longer taking Russian gas from pipelines that cross the country.

The support from the former Russian prime minister came 10 days after Gazprom accused Ukraine of continuing to siphon gas and sell it to Poland illegally.

Last week, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma reacted angrily to the charge, saying, "Ukraine has violated the gas delivery terms not a single time," the Interfax news agency reported.

The state-owned gas company Naftogaz Ukrainy followed with a more qualified statement, saying that it has not allowed any siphoning since last June and that none took place during last winter's heating season.

The company's statement stopped noticeably short of Kuchma's blanket assurance that Ukraine had never taken any unauthorized gas.

Last August, Kuchma told the German news magazine "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 also glossed over an incident in January, when Ukrainian power companies admitted to taking Russian gas rather than submit to a complete cutoff by Gazprom's trading partner, Itera.

The various versions make it hard to tell who speaks with authority about the problem that has roiled relations between the two nations for the past decade. The siphoning has also become an energy security issue for Europe, which relies on Russia for one-fourth of its gas. Over 90 percent of the fuel flows through the former Soviet lines in Ukraine.

Chernomyrdin, who once served as Gazprom's chairman, seems to have overruled current board member Yurii Komarov, who had cited Ukraine for the diversions the week before.

It is unclear whether Chernomyrdin is speaking for Gazprom or only representing the interests of the Russian state, which owns 38 percent of its stock. The Russian government often treats any debt to Gazprom as its own, while Gazprom regularly acts as a foreign policy arm of the state in the near abroad.

It also seems odd that it would take Kuchma over a week to react to the charges lodged publicly by Komarov. Chernomyrdin has been holding talks on key issues including the merger of Russian and Ukrainian power grids and the joint use of pipelines, the RIA-Novosti news agency said. The events suggest that the siphoning claim is being used as a tool in Russia's bid to control the pipelines.

Moscow has been working a two-track strategy by negotiating with Poland for a new pipeline route to bypass Ukraine. Poland has put off its approval and sought concessions, while Russia has kept up its pressure on Ukraine. Moscow's message to Warsaw is that it may win the old route and not need Poland after all.

Gazprom's mysterious ways have been compounded by its accounting of Ukraine's debt. Last week, the company said that Ukraine owed it $2.5 billion dollars, an increase over previous estimates of $2 billion dollars. But the Petroleum Argus newsletter noted that Gazprom has not sold any gas directly in Ukraine for the past two years.

The sales have been handled by Itera, raising the question of whether Gazprom is counting Itera's debts as its own. The two have denied ownership links, despite widespread skepticism. It is unclear whether Chernomyrdin is acting in the interests of either company, neither, or both.

Chernomyrdin's son is said to own stakes in companies that have benefited from Gazprom business. According to disclosures in Gazprom's annual report, Chernomyrdin's children are "significant" shareholders in Stroitransgaz, a Gazprom pipeline contractor, the "Financial Times" said last week.

In the meantime, the Agence France Presse news agency reported that Gazprom's new chief executive, Alexei Miller, is interested in selling up to 5 percent of the company to Royal Dutch/Shell, the leading competitor for the Ukrainian pipelines. A combination of interests could leave Kyiv with nowhere to turn.

While questions go unanswered, Russia's strategies seem to be taking a toll on Ukraine, raising the possibility that it will soon make a deal on its pipelines.