Russia hopeful of resuming European gas supplies
The European Commission says it will take at least three days for Russian gas deliveries to resume to Europe.Moscow -- Russian gas deliveries to Europe could resume late Friday, the head of Russia's state gas firm said, raising hopes for an end to a transit dispute with Ukraine that has left several European states without gas at a moment of bitter cold.
The apparent breakthrough came after Moscow and Kiev appeared to accept an EU plan to deploy monitors in Russia and Ukraine to check the flows of Russian gas destined for Europe across pipelines that transit Ukraine.
The European Commission called for Russian gas to start flowing "without any further delay" across Ukraine after a dozen European countries endured a fourth day without supplies of Russian gas in the midst of a fiercely cold winter.
"We are counting on the protocol being signed today ... and then we will literally immediately resume delivery," Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said at a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
But in Brussels, the European Commission said it would take at least three days for Russian gas deliveries to return to Europe.
"It would take at least three days from the moment that the resumption of the gas could be agreed upon for the gas to arrive at the European border and to European consumers," a commission energy spokesman told reporters.
The commission said a first team of observers was en route for Kiev and was due to arrive at 1200 GMT Friday.
Medvedev stressed that Russia was determined to resume delivery but said this would not happen until the verification agreement had been formalized. "Naturally we want to see the transit gas resumed as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, no trust in the Ukrainian side remains,” he said.
The deployment of observers has emerged as key to breaking the deadlock in the transit dispute, where both Russia and Ukraine blame each other for prompting the shut-down of Russian gas to EU clients.
Up to a dozen EU observers, drawn from the European gas industry and the European Commission, were due on the ground in Ukraine, Ukrainian officials have said.
Ukraine's state gas company Naftogaz said it was "not against" the presence of observers from Russian gas giant Gazprom on Ukrainian territory, a key sticking point in the row with Moscow.
"There is now agreement on the details of the monitoring mission," the European Commission said in a statement. "It is now imperative that the gas start to flow to the European Union without any further delay."
The apparent progress came even though talks late Thursday in Brussels broke up in acrimony without any agreement on Russia resuming gas supplies to Europe that transit Ukraine.
However in a surprise late-night announcement hours later, the Czech EU presidency said that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had agreed on the deployment of EU monitors.
Scores of schools in Eastern Europe have been shut down and thousands of households left without heating after supplies of Russian gas across Ukraine dried up earlier this week.
Topolanek was to visit Kiev Friday to finalize the deployment of monitors to enable Russian gas to begin flowing "immediately," a source close to the Czech EU presidency said.
Russia is the world's biggest natural gas producer and the European Union depends on Russian gas pumped via Ukraine for around a fifth of its total gas consumption.
The supply cuts have meant that thousands of people in eastern Europe have been left without gas at a time when many are facing temperatures below the freezing point.
Russia formally shut off supplies on Wednesday, insisting it had been forced to do so after Ukraine closed all conduits for shipping the gas to Europe and accusing Kiev of "stealing" the gas Russia was pumping.
However Kiev vehemently rejects charges of stealing gas and says Moscow had been progressively reducing supplies in transit across Ukraine ever since the crisis began.
In Bulgaria the government began 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.
While in the snow-blanketed Bosnian capital Sarajevo, about 72,000 households remained without heating for a fourth day Friday due to a total halt in Russian gas supplies.
Even after the dispute over the transit across Ukraine is resolved, Kiev and Moscow still have to solve their standoff over the gas Gazprom supplies to that domestic Ukrainian market that sparked the problems in Europe.
Miller told Medvedev on Friday that there had been "no progress" in those negotiations with Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine failed to agree on a contract for 2009 after Kiev refused to accept Moscow's demands to pay substantially higher prices for Russian gas. In 2008, Ukraine was charged far less than what EU states pay for Russian gas.