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Ukrainian Leader Seeks To Assure EU On Gas

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (center), with the EU's Jose Manuel Barroso (right) and Fredrik Reinfeldt after the summit
(RFE/RL) -- European officials have urged Ukraine to be a more "predictable" energy partner and make good on its promises of reforms.

Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso made the remarks at a tense news conference following today's annual EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv.

Reinfeldt, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, said Ukraine's bitter gas disputes with Moscow had hurt its credentials as a reliable energy transit route.

"There is a lot of patience that has been lost with the European consumers when it comes to the conflicts linked to energy," Reinfeldt said. "Therefore, we ask all those engaged to solve their bilateral problems and be predictable as a supplier of energy."

About 80 percent of Russia's natural-gas exports to Europe transit through Ukraine. A pricing row dispute between Ukraine and Russia last winter led to cuts in supplies that left millions of Europeans without heating.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko pledged that Russian gas would flow to Europe, but deflected some of the criticism by describing Russia's transit tariff system as unfair.

"We want our gas relations to be organized not on a colonial model but on a market-based model," Yushchenko said.

"We don't need loans, but we need normal tariffs that allow [state-run gas monopoly] Naftogaz to receive $3 billion, $4 billion, or $5 billion as payments for services provided by the largest European transit company."

In a move that may help soothe EU concerns, Ukraine today settled its bill for Russian gas imports in November, estimated at around $770 million.

Reform Setbacks

Ukraine, which Yushchenko wants to become an EU and NATO member, was also chided for dragging its feet on reforms toward integration with Europe.

European Commission President Barroso told the briefing that Ukraine had only "partially" met its reform targets.

The summit didn't result in any major breakthrough on a planned EU-Ukraine association agreement. The deal, which would open the door to free trade, was meant to have been concluded this year.

Barroso said the European Union hoped to sign the agreement in 2010.

Yushchenko did nothing to hide his disappointment, saying Europe also had a responsibility in making the agreement a success.

He pinned the blame for Ukraine's reform setbacks on the government of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, his Orange Revolution ally-turned-foe.

Bitter political infighting since the 2004 Orange Revolution has paralyzed decision-making and hampered reform in one of the region's poorest countries.

Election Tensions

Ukraine's January 17 presidential election adds to the uncertainty. The main contenders are Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych, who has close ties to the Kremlin and a strong following in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east.

Yushchenko, describing himself as a "Euro-optimist," today sought to reassure European officials that the vote will not derail Ukraine's European ambitions.

Barroso urged Ukraine to hold a free and fair presidential election to help it advance towards integration with Europe.

"We certainly expect these elections to be free and fair, as it happened already in the past," Barroso said.

"We also expect that after these elections there is a strong commitment to reform and the need for responsible governance so that Ukraine can advance towards its legitimate European aspirations."

The country's troubled economy, badly hit by the global recession, also remains a stumbling block in Ukraine-EU relations.

Discord between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko has suspended an ongoing multibillion-dollar bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Brussels has offered to lend $500 million to prop up Ukraine's economy, but that loan is tied to the suspended IMF program.