Russia, Ukraine Sign Deal To Resume Gas Supply To Europe

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russia and Ukraine have signed an accord on natural gas transit allowing resumption of Russian supply to Europe as early as Sunday and an end to one of Europe's worst energy crises, officials said.

A new born baby sleeps next to an electric heater in Sofia's maternity hospital.

"We signed the protocol today so that Ukraine has nothing to answer for," Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko told journalists early Sunday after emergency overnight talks with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek.

The accord, setting out terms for placing international monitors at metering stations on Ukraine's gas pipeline network to verify gas transit volumes, was signed Saturday by Russia after Topolanek met Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine's signature of the protocol was the crucial element Russia demanded before it would agree to a resume pumping gas into the pipeline network that transits through Ukraine to supply numerous countries in Europe.

The next step is for the monitors to take up positions at key gas transit sites in both Ukraine and Russia to make sure the gas Russia pumps into the system also leaves the system and is delivered in full to Russia's customers.

Topolanek, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said the deployment of the monitors was "a matter of hours."

Czech Trade and Industry Minister Martin Riman said it would be possible for the flow of Russian gas to Europe to start later Sunday, though EU officials have said it could take three days to restore the gas supplies to full volume.

"Gas supplies can resume Sunday if everyone works 100 percent," Riman said after Ukraine signed.

The gas crisis that has taken a heavy toll on a dozen states, notably in central Europe and the Balkans, began when Russia halted supply to Ukraine itself on New Year's Day over a payment and contractual dispute.

Within a week, it had mushroomed into a major energy crisis for Europe, leaving thousands of homes in several countries without heat amid bitterly cold weather and forcing shutdown of factories, schools and public facilities.

In his meeting with Topolanek at his country home outside Moscow, Putin vowed that Russia would restore gas supply "immediately" as soon as the monitors went to work.

But he warned that Russia would halt supply just as quickly again if it saw that gas shipped into Ukraine for transit to customers in Europe did not come out of Ukraine in the same volumes.

"I want this to be clear and understood ahead of time," Putin warned. "We simply will not tolerate theft under any circumstance."

Ukraine has vehemently denied Russian accusations that it was "stealing" transit gas, and President Viktor Yushchenko said Friday such charges from Moscow were designed to "humiliate" his country.

Tymoshenko said the agreement, signed for Ukraine by Deputy Prime Minister Grygory Nemyrya and the deputy chief of Ukraine's gas company Naftogaz, Volodymyr Trikolich, was "harsher" on Ukraine than a prior EU draft had been.

The fiery Ukrainian prime minister also seemed to want to limit the time the agreement on the international monitors would remain in effect, saying the "maximum period" for this should not exceed one month.

Putin by contrast had earlier suggested the monitors consider establishing a long-term presence at the metering sites, joking that they could live in tents like protesters in Ukraine's pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004.

The text of the accord signed by Putin, Tymoshenko and the EU was not immediately made public.

The composition of the monitoring commission however was expected to include representation of the energy ministries and gas companies of Russia and Ukraine along with experts from a number of European gas companies and the EU.

Although the signing of the accord was expected to lead to a quick resumption of Russian gas flow to Europe, it did not resolve the bilateral dispute between Russia and Ukraine at the origin of the crisis.

"Three days of negotiations ended with nothing," the head of Ukraine's state gas company Naftogaz, Oleg Dubina, said after returning to Kiev from Russia.

At her press conference, Tymoshenko said: "We will try to continue negotiations with Russia through all possible channels" on a new gas contract.

Source: AFP