Russia-Ukraine gas talks collapse amid dispute over monitors

9th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said Moscow had refused to sign up to a deal, which would have restored supplies to around a dozen EU nations, at least in part because Moscow wanted its own observers stationed in Ukraine.

Brussels -- EU-sponsored talks collapsed between Russia and Ukraine on resolving a gas dispute that has cut supplies to Europe in the midst of a bitterly cold winter, with Moscow blamed for the failure.

Czech Industry Minister Martin Riman, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, told reporters in Brussels Thursday that Gazprom had refused a proposal for independent monitors to check the flow of Russian gas through Ukraine.

"We are disappointed by Russia's position because we believe that the Russian side has no reason to refuse this proposal and not to allow the resumption of supplies into Ukraine and European countries," he said.

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said Moscow had refused to sign up to a deal, which would have restored supplies to around a dozen EU nations, at least in part because Moscow wanted its own observers stationed in Ukraine.

But the head of Russian energy monopoly Gazprom pointed the finger at Kiev.

"Ukraine has ruined the signing of such a document" on the sending of a group of independent observers to monitor gas flows, Alexei Miller was quoted as saying in Brussels. "All responsibility lies on the Ukrainian side."

"We had the opportunity today to resume gas supplies (to Europe via Ukraine) but this has not happened today," he added.

Russia is the world's biggest natural gas producer and provides about one-quarter of the gas used in the European Union, or about 40 percent of the gas the bloc imports. About 80 percent of those imports pass though Ukraine.

Ukraine agreed to the monitors on Thursday and 10 to 12, drawn from the European gas industry and the European Commission, are due on the ground as early as Friday.

The monitors are to be tasked with checking how much gas is being piped from Russia to Ukraine, which is the main transit route for Russian gas to Europe.

Russia, which cut supplies for Ukraine's domestic market on January 1 due to a payments dispute, has accused Ukraine of stealing gas intended for Europe.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insisted that Russia was not to blame for a crisis that has left thousands of Europeans without gas in freezing temperatures.

He had earlier agreed that observers from the European Union should be sent as soon as possible.

"Russia is not guilty," he said. "It is not us who stopped the gas. We even continued to pump after Ukraine had closed all the pipes."

While he conceded that the crisis had hurt Russia's image as a reliable gas supplier, he lashed out at Western media who he accused of taking Kiev's side.

"Of course this is creating problems for us," he said. "But forgive me for saying so, but I have not seen an objective evaluation of the situation. Foreign media, Western media are painting a completely non-objective picture of 'Russia Shuts Gas to Europe'."

With EU countries suffering gas cuts, the bloc's leaders are growing increasingly impatient to see Moscow and Kiev resume the flow of gas critical for heating homes, schools and factories in bitter winter weather.

In Bulgaria, the government has begun rationing gas supplies to industries and temperatures in buildings plummeted. Seventy-five schools across the country closed until Friday for lack of adequate heating.

Serbia has switched 90 percent of its heating plants to crude oil after Russian gas deliveries were completely halted at midnight on Tuesday.

And in the snow-blanketed Bosnian capital Sarajevo, about 72,000 households remained without heating for a third day due to a total halt in Russian gas supplies.

"Temperatures are as low as minus 15 (Celsius), the country does not have any natural gas reserves and the capital and its citizens rely on gas for heating," Nedzad Brankovic, prime minister of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat half, wrote in a letter to Russian energy giant Gazprom. "Such a situation reminds citizens of (Bosnia's) 1992-1995 war. So I ask you to have all these facts in mind when deciding on whether to resume gas supplies."

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy weighed in, pressuring Russia: "The Russians must respect their contractual obligations to the Europeans."

After talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris, he called on Russia and Ukraine to "faithfully take the path of negotiation to reach agreement," adding that France and Germany saw eye-to-eye on the issue.

Lorne Cook/AFP/Expatica

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