Russia-Ukraine gas tensions resurface


This article is part of our special report EU-Ukraine Relations.

With the winter season approaching, Ukraine and Russia have reignited old tensions about gas pricing, in a row reminiscent of the trade dispute which ended up leaving parts of Europe cold in 2006 and 2009.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday (31 August) that he was perplexed by Ukraine's attempt to secure a cut in gas prices, accusing the former Soviet republic of trying to sponge from Moscow.

Medvedev, speaking in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, said Ukraine wanted discount gas prices but was offering Russia nothing in return.

"It is very sad, it is sponging," Interfax reported Medvedev as saying.

Alexei Miller, the head of Russia's gas export monopoly Gazprom, said on the same day that Ukraine has to pay for at least 33 billion cubic metres of gas a year under the current contract. Reportedly, Ukraine has filed a request to reduce purchases to 27 bcm.

"Such are the take-or-pay conditions of the current contract. The conditions will be applied this year and during all the period of the contract," Alexei Miller said.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said his country, a top buyer of Russian gas, should reduce imports by two thirds in the coming years.

Political process

Tensions between the two countries are rising as Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister of Ukraine, prepares to face trial in her country for having signed a gas treaty with Russia in 2009 which Kyiv now considers detrimental to its interests.

Her trial has triggered street demonstrations by her supporters, and has attracted criticism from US and EU officials.

Bronis?aw Komorowski, president of Poland, the country that currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, told Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovich on Tuesday that the trial of Tymoshenko may slow Kyiv's push for closer ties with the European Union.

"Obstacles have appeared [on Kyiv's path to European integration] and one of these is undoubtedly the trial of Ms. Julia Tymoshenko, which in Europe, in many countries, is seen as a trial of a political, not a criminal, nature, that harms the image of Ukraine," Komorowski said on the occasion of Yanukovich's visit to Warsaw.

"This issue is a hurdle for Ukraine if it is a question of the speed of its move towards European integration. And that worries us as an advocate of Ukraine's cause," Komorowski added, according to Reuters.

Indeed, Poland is a strong supporter of Ukraine's EU integration, but also of promoting democracy in Eastern Europe.

Yanukovich has taken a strongly pro-Russian line in some policy areas, such as ditching his country's ambitions to join NATO, but he has also made clear that he sees Ukraine's long-term future in the European mainstream, Reuters recalls.

People First, a Ukrainian civil society organisation whose mission is to help build democracy in Ukraine, sent EURACTIV the following comment:

"The world community is starting to get more and more worried about the Tymoshenko case, stating that it is politically motivated. The last statements of US senator John McCain and the president of the European People's Party, Wilfried Martens, and their support on the part of the president of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek and the US Department of State affirm this. 

"At the same time, the Ukrainian society has no trust in the legitimacy of any decision of this particular judge and the judiciary system on the whole, no matter what this decision will be and what Tymoshenko is tried for. There are reasons to doubt whether the decisions of the Tymoshenko government were transparent, but what the current power is doing with her can't be called justice.  

"Will this harm relations with the EU? This depends on the priorities of the European Union. Whether the EU only wants access to Ukraine's resources, or whether it is ready to support Ukrainian citizens in asserting democratic principles."

Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovich is often labelled by the Western press as pro-Russian. However, he had been skilled enough to make symbolic gestures both to Moscow and Brussels. He recently declared that he sees the future of his country as "a proud member of the European Union".

Yanukovich has also moved to strengthen ties with Moscow. Last April, a deal was struck to cut the price of gas supplies to Ukraine by 30% in exchange for allowing the Russian navy to continue using the Crimean peninsula as a base.

Ukraine is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU, but at the same time is under pressure from Russia to join its customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

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