Infighting In Ukraine Behind Raid On Gas Firm

KIEV, Ukraine -- Security agents raided the offices of Ukraine's state energy company Wednesday in what appeared to be an escalation of a power struggle between the president and the prime minister.

An armed man walking along the corridor in the headquarters of state energy firm Naftogaz in Kiev, Ukraine, on Wednesday.

"This is all about the conflict between the president and the prime minister," said Yuri Yakimenko, director of political and legal programs at the Razumkov Center, a research institution in Kiev. "What shouldn't be happening though is that the law enforcement bodies are now being used for political purposes."

At the heart of the dispute are the Ukrainian state-run gas concern Naftogaz and RosUkrEnergo, a private energy company in Switzerland.

The two companies played large roles last month in a confrontation over gas between Russia and Ukraine that temporarily cut off energy supplies to parts of Europe.

Naftogaz answers primarily to the government of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. RosUkrEnergo, until the gas dispute, was the sole distributor of Russian gas in Ukraine, and one of its owners, Dmitri Firtash, is considered by experts to be a key power broker.

Officials from the Ukrainian Security Service, or SBU, some wearing black ski masks and carrying automatic weapons, swooped down on the headquarters of Naftogaz in central Kiev in an attempt to seize documents for a criminal investigation that began two days ago.

In dispute, according to Marina Ostapenko, spokeswoman for the security service, are 6.3 billion cubic meters, or 222 billion cubic feet, of gas, worth 7.4 Ukrainian hryvna, or $880 million. The gas, she said, was illegally claimed by the Ukrainian government and should be delivered to its rightful owner, RosUkrEnergo. Agents had attempted to enter the Naftogaz building the evening before, but were rebuffed, she added.

"Our agents were attacked," Ostapenko said. "That is why we included this time members of the Alpha security services."

Naftogaz officials and pro-Tymoshenko parliamentarians told a different story. They said that the offices were raided unexpectedly, by agents who initially refused to identify themselves, in an attempt to confiscate gas that rightfully belongs to the state.

SBU officers did not succeed in removing any documents, they said - not even the agreement between Naftogaz and Gazprom to end the gas dispute. That agreement has been a point of contention between Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko, who called it a defeat for Ukraine.

"The SBU has now become the private security service for Ukrainian businessman Dmitri Firtash," said the parliamentary deputy Sergei Vlasenko, a member of Yulia Tymoshenko's political bloc.

Although Yushchenko was not directly involved in initiating the criminal case, political observers said the raid Wednesday was the latest battle in the power struggle between him and Tymoshenko, a conflict that has paralyzed this former Soviet republic of 46 million just as its economy unravels.

Industrial output plunged by 34 percent year-on-year in January, and social tensions are mounting. Gazprom has vowed to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine again this month if Naftogaz does not pay $400 million by the end of the week.

Source: International Herald Tribune