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Secret “gas” weapon in the hands of Ukrainian customs

20 December, 00:00

On Dec. 15, fresh from his two trips to Moscow and Ashgabat, Ukraine’s Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov tried to calm the nerves of Ukrainian citizens, who are cringing ahead of time in their still warm apartments. He started with the good news. Ukraine has recorded a 2.5 percent increase in electricity output (a contract to sell surplus electricity to Belarus is in the works). The level of payments for Ukrainian electricity has reached 99 percent, up 13 percent from last year. Coal-fired power plants consume all the coal produced in the country, and the ministry is working to optimize its coal pricing policy (obviously, to avoid any further buildup of wage arrears in the coal mining sector), etc.

While discussing the unfortunate news from the natural gas “battle fields,” he tried to couch them in optimistic terms, refraining from accusing the negotiators either in Turkmenistan, which is offering to sell natural gas to both Ukraine and Russia at the same price per 1,000 cubic meters, although negotiations are continuing, or in Russia, which has heated up the natural gas tensions with Ukraine by boosting prices first to 160 and then 230 dollars per 1,000 cubic meters. Plachkov confirmed the former figure, citing the parties’ agreement not to disclose the details of the negotiations and adding that this could be a personal opinion of one person or another.

Judging by Plachkov’s statements, the disclosure restrictions do not apply to only two fundamental questions. Russia has apparently agreed to gradually introduce a new format of relations with Ukraine in the natural gas sector. This process will be extended until 2009 inclusively. At the same time, the parties will establish a joint venture to sell natural gas that Ukraine will purchase from Russia in excess of the volumes it receives in payment for gas transit across its territory. In response to a question from The Day, Plachkov could not specify the principles on which it will be founded: either it will be based on the existing JV Rosukrenergo — which Yulia Tymoshenko condemned as a criminal outgrowth — with its participation, or formulated absolutely from scratch. Plachkov did not rule out any of these options, but underscored that Ukraine will participate in it on a parity basis, i.e., it will own 50 percent of its shares. According to Plachkov, the question of reviving the consortium to manage the Ukrainian gas transport system was not raised during the negotiations, and nobody is laying claims to the Ukrainian pipeline, as has been suggested in recent media reports. Last week Plachkov and his counterpart negotiator Viktor Khristenko were scheduled to draw the bottom line beneath the conclusions of experts from both sides.

In fact, this is where the main news from Plachkov stopped. He repeated President Yushchenko’s assurances that Ukraine guarantees that the full-volume transit of Russian natural gas to Europe will be maintained. Plachkov further explained that “if there are no volumes, there will be nothing to guarantee” because “Ukraine cannot effect the transit of natural gas for free: in this event our transport organizations will not survive.”

Commenting on these innuendos, one of The Day’s experts pointed out that Plachkov is proceeding from the president’s instructions to sign at least something. After all, the president realizes the dangers that a failure to reach an agreement on gas shipments poses for Ukraine. Meanwhile, the experts who are directly involved in the negotiations have adopted a much harsher stance. This expert believes that everything will end with the energy resources department of the Ukrainian Customs Office becoming involved in the dispute, seizing Russian gas as contraband, and immediately selling it to Europe at the highest possible price. However, another expert of The Day, the famous Pora political party functionary and founder of the Nova Enerhiya Company, Valeriy Borovyk, absolutely rejected such a scenario:: “Putin has taken the bit between his teeth, which is why this should not be done. This is war.” God help us.

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