Russia denies bullying Ukraine into its customs union


Moscow, which recently slammed Kyiv with a huge gas bill, said Monday (4 February) that an arrangement could be found. A Russian diplomat explained that the deal would not necessarily require Ukraine to join Moscow's proposed Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. 

According to statements by a high-ranking Russian diplomat, Moscow does not link the lowering of gas prices to Ukraine with the country’s customs union membership.

The European Commission has warned Ukraine that its possible customs union agreement with Russia is incompatible with the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) it wants to sign with the EU.

Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan agreed in June 2009 to form a customs bloc and seek joint accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The move was opposed by the European Union and the United States, as it was expected to delay Russia's own WTO bid. Russia joined the WTO last summer, after a 19-year long wait.

Ukrainian media quoted the Russian ambassador to Kyiv, Mikhail Zurabov, saying that the disagreement over a $7-billion (€5.2-billion) bill which Russia recently presented to Ukraine won’t need to go to court. The bill was presented as part of a 'take-or-pay’ clause according to which Ukraine has to pay even if it hasn’t imported the gas.

>> Read: EU keeps cool in fresh Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute

Zurabov said that he expected all problems to be settled in March when Russia President Vladimir Putin is due to meet his Ukraine counterpart, Viktor Yanukovich.

"The Russian and Ukrainian authorities have found approaches which would allow already in the near future a reduction of gas prices to be made, that is, a basic revision of the contract. And I must say: the agreements have been reached outside of the context of Ukraine's accession to the Customs Union,” the Russian diplomat said.

He added: “Of course, Ukraine's participation in the Customs Union will reduce the cost of fuel to the level of the Customs Union. However, this issue was not discussed ," the diplomat said.

Experts quoted by the Ukrainian side see the news as progress in the talks, although the deal still needs to be concluded at the highest level.

The exact date of a meeting between Putin and Yanukovich is not yet known. Last December, the two presidents were due to meet just ahead of the EU-Russia summit on 18 December, but the talks were postponed at the last minute.

>> Read: Ukraine cancels gas talks ahead of EU-Russia summit

According to sources quoted by the daily Izvestia in Ukraine, the meeting between Putin and Yanukovich is likely to take place in March, after the EU-Ukraine summit on 25 February.

Political analysts are quoted as saying that the upcoming meeting would not only decide on a discount for Ukraine, but also the establishment of a bilateral consortium to manage the Ukrainian gas transportation system, the assets of which would be equally shared between Ukraine’s Naftogaz and Russia’s Gazprom.

Russia has for a long time sought a deal that would grant Gazprom property over the pipelines carrying Russian through Ukraine in exchange for cheaper prices to Kyiv.

“On the basis of this new company a consortium will be set up. This will be signed together with the gas discount," analyst Vadim Karasev is quoted as saying.

A payment dispute between Russia and Ukraine over gas supply and transit left millions of East Europeans without heating in the first three weeks of 2009. 

A solution to the gas crisis was later found between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart at that time, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Under the present Ukrainian leadership, Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison over allegations that she abused her office in relation to a gas deal signed with Russia in 2009. This development has been a setback for the EU-Ukrainian relations.

Ukraine is trying to bring down the price it pays for Russian gas. On 20 December, Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Mykola Azarov failed to achieve a breakthrough in talks in which Russia links the issue of price reduction to a stake in Ukraine's gas pipeline network.

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