Thousands Of Ukrainian Union Members Rally In Capital Against Increase In Gas And Energy Prices

KIEV, Ukraine -- Thousands of Ukrainian union members jammed the capital's main square on Wednesday to protest the increase in gas and electricity prices and demand that this ex-Soviet republic do more to raise its people out of poverty.

Thousands of Ukrainian workers rally in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 24, 2006. Tens of thousands are protesting against the growth of electricity tariffs

"How can the government expect us to keep paying more when we don't receive a wage that you can live on?" said Kateryna Ivanchuk, a senior nurse at a Kyiv emergency room. She said the average nurse's salary was 354 hryvnias ($70) a month.

President Viktor Yushchenko's government has increased wages for state workers in this nation of 47 million, but the increases have been quickly gobbled up by rising prices for food and utilities.

This month, private consumers saw gas prices jump 25 percent, and Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov warned Tuesday that another 50 percent increase could be on the horizon. The cost of other communal services, such as electricity, have also increased.

The sharp increases became a necessity after this year's gas dispute with Russia, which led to a twofold increase in the gas price charged to Ukraine. Ukrainian lawmakers initially pledged that there would be no immediate impact on the population, and kept the promise until after the March parliamentary elections.

The protesters, who numbered some 15,000, carried signs reading, "Increase in prices means an increase in poverty." Nurses and medical workers, wearing long white laboratory coats, brushed shoulders with eastern Ukrainian miners in red hard hats and Communists waving Soviet flags.

Yekhanurov on Wednesday ordered the Ministry of Fuel and Energy to explain the reasons behind the increase and provide comparisons with neighboring countries, many of which pay more than Ukraine for energy supplies.

Ukraine is one of the biggest gas consumers in Europe, but critics say that huge amounts are wasted through inefficiency.

Oleksiy Shvetlichny, a member of the Donetsk Union of Metalworkers and Miners, said he feared that the rising cost of energy could drive some of Ukraine's factories and mines out of business. "How much are we supposed to endure," he said.

Source: AP