KYIV (Reuters) -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko denounced the mass famine of the 1930s engineered by Josef Stalin as "murder through starvation" at a ceremony boycotted by Russia's president.
Russia's objections to Ukraine's marking of the 75th anniversary of the 1932-33 famine form part of a long list of differences between the Kremlin and Kyiv's pro-Western leaders swept to power by mass "Orange Revolution" rallies in 2004.
These include payment for Russian gas supplies, Yushchenko's drive to secure NATO membership, and Ukraine's call for Russia's Black Sea Fleet to leave its base in Crimea by 2017.
Serious estimates of the death toll vary considerably -- between 3 million and 10 million -- but virtually all sides agree that millions died
as a result of Stalin's effort to break the spirit of Ukraine's independent farmers.
Addressing a conference, Yushchenko restated his conviction that the famine amounted to "genocide" against Ukraine's people.
"The famine of 1932-33 was not death by starvation, it was murder through starvation. This was the essence of the genocide.... It was an artificial famine, with a clear aim and clearly planned," Yushchenko told the gathering in Kyiv's opera house. "The aim was to bleed Ukraine dry, undermine its strength and do away with any hope of restoring Ukrainian statehood."
But Yushchenko avoided direct references to Russia, which rejects Ukraine's description of the famine as a "genocide," saying events then hit many ethnic groups in the Soviet Union.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who like Yushchenko is seeking NATO membership for his ex-Soviet state, went further, though he also refrained from referring to Moscow.
Speaking in the Ukrainian he learned as a student in Kyiv, Saakashvili said attempts to downplay the famine showed "the ideology of evil remains alive. Even 75 years after the tragedy, the seeds of evil still grow in some individuals."
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, one of many leaders to send messages, said future generations should be kept aware of the famine. A candlelight service was scheduled for later in the day.Russian Leader Stays Away
About a dozen countries have declared the famine a "genocide" of the Ukrainian people.
Russia dismisses any such notion, saying many ethnic groups were affected. President Dmitry Medvedev stayed away from the ceremonies and accused Yushchenko of distorting history.
As commemorations gathered pace, other rows dividing the ex-Soviet states came to the fore, mainly gas giant Gazprom's allegations of $2.4 billion in Ukrainian arrears for gas as the two sides pressed on with negotiations for 2009 supplies.
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov has warned that the company cannot ensure 2009 deliveries without a new contract.
Ukraine currently pays $179.50 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas and Kupriyanov said the market price for 2009 would be $400, a level dismissed by Ukrainian officials as "political."
Moscow opposes NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia and was deeply angered by Yushchenko's support for Tbilisi in the brief war pitting it against Russia in August.
NATO foreign ministers next month will reexamine a bid by both states to receive a "Membership Action Plan" -- a fast track to membership. A NATO summit in April turned down the request, but said the two countries would eventually join the alliance.
The famine was one of three to strike Ukraine last century. At its height, 25,000 people perished every day. Soldiers dumped bodies into pits and cannibalism became rife.
Soviet authorities denied for decades that it had occurred.