(RFE/RL) -- Senior officials from Eastern Europe have gathered in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv for a meeting with President Viktor Yushchenko aimed at ending his country's gas row with Russia.
The meeting in Kyiv, rather than resolving the natural-gas dispute, is expected to irritate Moscow.
The talks, which bring together some of Moscow's toughest Eastern European critics, was organized with unusual speed and secrecy and announced just hours before it began.
Participants include Polish President Lech Kaczynski, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic, and Moldovan Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanii, according to a Ukrainian statement.
However, Russia may see the Kyiv event as turning the spotlight away from its own summit with EU leaders, scheduled for January 17 in Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made no reference on January 16 to the Kyiv meetings, saying only that he "hoped all interested nations would attend" the Moscow summit.
"We really care about how the people of European countries feel during this period, while gas is not coming through Ukraine," Lavrov said. "We want to resolve this problem. If someone is not interested in doing that, we can't force them to come to Moscow if they don't want to."
That meeting is aimed at EU member states affected by the ongoing dispute between Moscow and Kyiv over Russian gas shipments that transit Ukraine.Growing European Frustration
Ostensibly a pricing dispute, the feud has degenerated into a political impasse, with each side appealing to the European Union to support its position.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the dispute has gone beyond bilateral issues and can only be resolved with the participation of European countries.
Countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe have spent more than a week with little or no deliveries of Russian gas. The cutoff comes amid a protracted cold snap and has left the Europeans frustrated with both Moscow and Kyiv.
European Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said in Brussels that the weekend meetings represented a "last chance" for Kyiv and Moscow to prove they can act responsibly in the dispute.
"The commission believes that the meetings in the coming days offer the last and best chance for Russia and for Ukraine to demonstrate that they are serious about resolving this dispute," Laitenberger said. "The gas must flow. We will regard this period as a test case for judging whether or not they are credible partners."
Czech Energy Minister Martin Riman, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, will attend the Moscow meeting together with EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs. The Czech presidency has urged individual states to allow the presidency and the commission to represent their interests at the meeting, rather than attending themselves.
Such sentiments could reflect worries that Moscow may use the meeting to curry favor with individual EU member states.
Brussels has also suggested that officials might forgo the meeting altogether if Ukraine is not represented with an "appropriately high-level" delegation. Ukrainian officials had earlier criticized the notion of holding the meeting in Moscow and suggested they might not attend.
The EU has qualified the ongoing dispute as a two-party commercial issue, but is clearly interested in seeing it resolved as quickly as possible. Countries that are heavily or even entirely dependent on Russian gas -- from Bulgaria to Slovakia to Poland -- have been forced to adopt emergency measures to deal with the gas shortage.
Russia ordered gas shipments resumed on January 13. But gas flows quickly shut down again after Moscow accused Kyiv of seeking to block the shipments.
Kyiv countered that Moscow had deliberately chosen a particular pipeline route that would force Ukraine to cut off supplies to its own domestic consumers in eastern Ukraine.
Observers speculate the gas row may be an attempt by Moscow to generate greater interest in pipeline projects that do not traverse Ukraine, notably its Nord Stream line that would deliver Russian gas directly to Germany.
Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin for talks on the gas issue.with additional news agency reports
Many sections of Ukraine's gas-pipeline system date back to the Soviet era and make it difficult to precisely control gas flows.