KIEV, Oct. 3 – President Viktor Yushchenko on Wednesday criticized Russian gas giant Gazprom for its statement threatening to cut natural gas supplies to Ukraine, calling it “not good” and “ill-timed.”
“I don’t think it was a good statement that it has been made in a form and time that corresponds to the constructive manner of our relations” with Russia, Yushchenko said.
Gazprom on Tuesday threatened to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine unless the country pays within the next 30 days $1.3 billion in gas debts that the company claims accumulated earlier this year.
The warning was a surprise and came less than two days after a snap parliamentary election in Ukraine had given a victory to pro-Western groups that are now expected to form the government and to replace pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
Gazprom’s statement was widely interpreted in Ukraine as that Russia has been putting economic pressure on Ukraine ahead of the change of the government.
Russia has been earlier accused of using its gas supply monopoly for pressuring its neighbors, but Moscow had denied this and had said it was merely seeking to charge market prices for gas.
Gazprom’s warning about possible gas supply cuts sent shockwaves throughout Ukraine with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych ordering to schedule a trip to Moscow in the near future to try to settle the issue.
Energy and Fuel Minister Yuriy Boyko was in Moscow on Wednesday for talks with Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian first deputy prime minister, and promised that Ukraine will pay the debt by Nov. 1.
Gazprom’s warning came as a surprise for Naftogaz Ukrayiny, the national oil and gas company, which said it as a state company it owed no money to Gazprom.
Ukrainian Finance Minister Mykola Azarov on Wednesday confirmed that the government had nothing to do with the debt, which was merely a debt owed by one gas trader to another gas trader.
“Since I represent the government, I want to make it clear that today the country of Ukraine does not have any debts before Gazprom,” Azarov said. “We owe not even a penny.”
Meanwhile, the development appears to be a major concern for the European Union, which had urged Ukraine and Russia to settle the debt issue as soon as possible to prevent possible gas supply disruptions.
The European Commission has invited representatives of Gazprom and the Ukrainian government for a meeting in Brussels in the middle of October to settle the issue.
This comes after Gazprom on Tuesday informed European customers and the European Commission that it has outstanding debt problems with gas supplies to Ukraine. The warning suggested that Gazprom has been preparing for a clash with Ukraine over gas supplies.
Gazprom moves about 110 billion cu m/year of its gas via Ukrainian gas pipelines, which is about 80% of Russia’s overall gas shipments to Europe.
The two other supply routes sending Russian gas to Europe include pipelines via Belarus to Poland and a pipeline under the Black Sea to Turkey.
But Ukrainian officials on Wednesday took steps to assure the EU that gas supplies will not be disrupted.
Ukraine managed to accumulate 32 billion cu m of gas in its underground tanks, filling the tanks to capacity for the first time in decades, which would be an important factor in upcoming talks with Russia.
“Such gas reserves have never been created before,” Azarov said. “32 billion cu m will be enough for almost a half year of work for the entire economy of Ukraine. We have good basis for the talks.”
Vadym Chuprun, a deputy energy and fuel minister, said that following the Gazprom warning, the government has taken extra steps to ensure steady gas supplies to Europe.
“The government has taken this issue under an absolute control,” Chuprun said. (sb/ez)