Russia, Ukraine sign agreement over gas conflict
Russia and Ukraine took a major step toward resolving a dispute over natural gas that has left large parts of Europe without heat or fuel for days, signing an agreement with the European Union to establish independent monitors of pipelines, officials said early Sunday.
The agreement was a precondition set by Russian energy officials to turn on the gas flow again. Russia shut off the valves on Thursday after an extended dispute with Ukraine over pricing and accusations of stealing gas from the export pipelines.
It may be days before relief comes to European countries down the line from Ukraine, especially Poland and Bulgaria, which have suffered greatly without heating fuel in the bitter winter weather. Even if Russia immediately turns on the flow, it would take about three days to repressurize the European natural gas pipeline system and restore full service, experts said. And the underlying price dispute has still not been resolved.
Still, the agreement was the first major progress in days of tough negotiations.
The breakthrough started on Saturday, when the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, met for hours of talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia outside Moscow and secured Russia’s agreement. Topolanek then flew to Kiev, Ukraine, late that night to meet with Ukrainian leaders.
Early Sunday, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine emerged from talks with Topolanek to say her country had signed the protocol. On the Russian side, Ilya Kochevrin, executive director of the export arm of Russia’s natural gas company, Gazprom, confirmed in a telephone interview that an agreement had been reached.
Topolanek was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that now, “Nothing prevents the deployment of monitoring teams and renewal of gas transit.”
Topolanek and other European officials, clearly unnerved as lights blinked out and homes went cold in some of the new member states of the union in Eastern Europe, had been pressing hard for a settlement in recent days.
In his opening remarks to Putin, Topolanek said his colleagues in Europe were interested in restoring gas flow rather than placing blame for the shut-off. The matter is deeply entangled in former Soviet politics and Russia’s assertions of a new and dominant role in the region.
“Indeed, the situation has gone so far that they stopped being interested in who is to blame,” Topolanek said, according to a Russian government transcript of the meeting. “Now we’re talking about preserving trust in a large supplier and a large transit country.”
Russian authorities maintain that Ukraine began siphoning from pipelines some of the Russian natural gas intended for export to Europe and has been using it to meet internal demand since Russia halted supplies to Ukraine on Jan. 1 because of a dispute over pricing.
Angered that Ukraine was circumventing its fuel embargo and and accusing its leaders of interrupting exports to paying customers farther west, Moscow halted all shipments to Europe via Ukrainian territory. That was unfortunate for European consumers, as about one-fifth of all the natural gas burned in Europe passes through the pipelines. Ukraine denied that it had withdrawn gas from the lines.
Ukraine rejected an earlier version of the monitoring protocol, saying the structure was too cumbersome and would delay the deployment of monitors. It was unclear early Sunday what specific changes had been made, if any, to meet those concerns.
Under the agreement finalized Sunday, Ukraine and Russia would accept observers on their territory, said Kochevrin, the export director for Gazprom.