Russia, Ukraine set for high-level talks

Ukraine and Russia, embroiled in a lengthy gas dispute that has left much of eastern Europe in the cold, seemed headed Thursday for a high-level government meeting in Moscow over the weekend.


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AFP - Russia and Ukraine appeared Thursday to be moving towards holding a government-level meeting to resolve their gas dispute which has left much of Europe without heat for over a week.

After Russia called Wednesday for a summit meeting to resolve the crisis, the office of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko indicated the two governments would hold talks in Moscow on Saturday.

"Ukraine's Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation at midnight, and decided to hold talks of the two governments in Moscow on Saturday," the Ukrainian government's press service was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

It was impossible to immediately confirm whether the meeting would be between Tymoshenko and Putin, or other ministers.

It was also unclear if leaders of other countries affected by the crisis would travel to Moscow, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev initially proposed on Wednesday.

Ukrainian leaders originally opposed holding the meeting in Moscow, saying they preferred the summit be held in a country not involved in the dispute.

But Tymoshenko had earlier Wednesday indicated that the time had come for direct higher-level meetings to try to resolve the dispute.

"The process of negotiations must move from the Gazprom-Naftogaz level to the level of governments," she told a news conference.

The managers of Russia's Gazprom and Ukraine's Naftogaz have met to resolve the row, but it has been clear that political leaders have had the final say in the dispute, and so far they have yet to meet face-to-face.

The EU relies on Russian gas pumped via Ukraine for a fifth of its supplies.

Those supplies have been halted since Russia cut them off last Wednesday, accusing Ukraine of illegally siphoning the gas for its own domestic market -- a charge vehemently denied by Ukraine.

Russia earlier cut off supplies to Ukraine on New Year's Day following a dispute over payments and a failure to agree on a price for 2009.

An EU-brokered agreement on resuming gas deliveries to Europe collapsed on Tuesday with both sides blaming the other for the failure.

That agreement was reached through shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Kiev by Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

The Czech EU presidency said Wednesday it was withholding a response to Russia's call for a summit while it analysed the proposal.

European leaders voiced growing frustration at the squabbling between Russia and Ukraine, however.

EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso told the European Parliament: "The current situation is unacceptable and incredible."

Barroso also encouraged European gas companies and EU member states to pursue legal action if a faltering agreement brokered by the European Union to get the taps turned on again was not honoured "as a matter of urgency."

The Czech EU presidency warned that the dispute would -- if not quickly resolved -- have "political consequences" for both Russia and Ukraine's relations with the EU.

Ukraine and Russia continued Wednesday to blame the other for Tuesday's unsuccessful attempt to get gas flowing to Europe.

Kiev said Moscow had deliberately chosen a transit route through Ukraine that made it technically impossible for shipments to Europe to pass.

"Russia wants to undermine our credibility as a transit state for gas to Europe, but our technical system is sound," said Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Russian Prime Minister urged the EU to put pressure on Ukraine to resolve the dispute.

"Europe must send a clear, comprehensive signal -- not to Russia, urging us to sell our product less than cheap, but to Ukraine, a signal that it must behave itself in a civilised manner," he said in an interview with Germany's ARD television, according to a transcript published Thursday on the Russian government's website.

He urged building new pipelines to diversify supply routes, and suggested Ukraine borrow funds to pay for gas imports, or possibly lease its pipeline system to an international consortium to handle gas transit.


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