MOSCOW, June 24 - Russia's Prime Minister said Friday that negotiations on a new contract for Russian natural gas supplies to Ukraine would be held in the last three months of the year, a newswire reported.
The announcement effectively postpones the crucial talks until after the early Parliamentary election in Ukraine that has been scheduled on Sept. 30.
The election may lead to a change of the government in Ukraine away from the Russia-friendly government of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych towards the government that may be led by a pro-Western figure, analysts said. Opinion polls show that pro-Russian and pro-Western parties currently enjoy almost the same level of support within Ukraine.
Russia has been earlier using its natural gas monopoly as a tool to put pressure on Ukraine to force it to postpone its pro-Western course, such as accession to NATO. Russia suspended its gas supplies to Ukraine on Jan. 1, 2006, citing a price dispute, but the move had also caused brief disruptions of gas supplies throughout Europe.
Russian and Ukrainian ties have warmed since pro-Russian Yanukovych was elected prime minister in August 2006.
Observers said the shutdown, which briefly halted supplies to Europe as Kiev skimmed the gas it needed from an export pipeline, had been aimed at weakening support for President Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western leader, ahead of the vote.
After defeating Yanukovych in presidential elections in 2005, Yushchenko had pledged to take Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit and closer to Europe.
"The tendency has been set in earlier agreements. We are cooperating, concluding contracts, we know how to agree," The Associated Press reported Friday, citing Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.
Last year Yanukovych reached an early agreement with Russia on gas prices for 2007, with Kiev pledging to pay $130 per 1,000 cubic meters. That is 40% more than Ukraine paid in 2006, but barely half the price Russia is charging other ex-Soviet republics. (ap/ez)