Europe sceptical over new Russia, Ukraine gas accord
AFP - Monday, January 19
MOSCOW, (AFP) - - Russia and Ukraine were set to finalise a deal on Monday to get natural gas flowing again, but the European Union remained sceptical about an imminent end to its worst-ever gas crisis.
Millions of Europeans have been left shivering without heat in winter after gas supplies were turned off due to a bitter dispute between the two ex-Soviet neighbours.
The details of an accord reached by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko on Sunday were to be worked out by the two countries' state gas companies, Gazprom and Naftogaz.
In a joint appearance Sunday to announce their agreement after marathon late-night talks, Putin said gas flows to Europe would resume "shortly" while Tymoshenko said the two companies had until Monday to draw up the agreements.
A spokeswoman for Tymoshenko said she intended to return to Moscow on Monday for the signing ceremony.
The EU cautiously welcomed Sunday's agreement but said the real test was whether gas would start flowing again.
"We welcome the announcement of a political accord, but we are quite cautious because there have been too many broken accords and promises not kept," a spokesman for the Czech presidency of the EU said in a statement.
In televised comments, Czech Industry Minister Martin Riman said he was only "slightly optimistic" about the deal.
"If the deliveries don't resume despite such strong declarations by the Russian and Ukrainian prime ministers, there will be a total crash in the confidence of EU consumers, citizens and the enterprise," he added.
Russian newspapers on Monday also expressed doubts about the deal.
Referring to Tymoshenko's political arch-rival in Kiev, the Kommersant daily wrote: "The risk of an escalation of the conflict cannot be ruled out until the new scheme is approved by Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko."
Yushchenko has so far been quiet on the agreement, with his office saying it needed more details before evaluating the deal. The Ukrainian president has taken a harder line with Russia than his premier.
The Vedomosti business daily pointed out that further gas disputes could still erupt: "This conflict has a long-term dimension, and it has a tendency to repeat."
The crisis broke out January 1 when Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in a dispute over unpaid debts and the price Kiev would pay for gas in 2009.
It escalated a week later when all gas shipments to Europe via Ukraine -- around a fifth of the EU's gas supplies -- were halted, with Russia accusing Ukraine of stealing gas. Kiev vehemently denied the allegation and blamed Moscow for stoking the crisis.
The dispute has frustrated the EU and led to calls within the bloc to rethink energy policies.
Thousands staged a protest in Bulgaria on Sunday calling for the reopening of an old nuclear power plant, while German Economy Minister Michael Glos told a newspaper: "We cannot allow ourselves to reject any source of energy."
Crucial details of the Putin-Tymoshenko agreement, such as whether Ukraine's debts had been settled, remained murky on Monday.
Nor was an exact price given as to how much Ukraine would pay for gas in 2009.
But Putin did say Ukraine had agreed to shift to full European prices for Russian gas in 2010 after years of enjoying significantly cheaper gas than Moscow's European customers.
But in 2009 Ukraine would get a 20-percent discount on the European price, in return for not raising the fees it charges Russia for transit of gas across its territory, he said.
Even with the discount, it appears that Ukraine will pay much more for gas than it did last year. In 2008 Kiev paid 179.50 dollars per 1,000 cubic metres of gas from Russia.
Europe now pays around 450 dollars for the same quantity of gas, though the price is expected to fall this year due to the global economic slowdown.
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A man lights a candle in front of two small portraits of Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a text reading "Does not keep us warm", during a protest in Sofia, Bulgaria. Russia and Ukraine were set to finalise a deal on Monday to get natural gas flowing again, but the European Union remained sceptical about an imminent end to its worst-ever gas crisis.
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