Embattled Ukraine leader says Europe won't be left in the cold

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko has pledged to do his utmost to avoid a repeat of last winter's disruptions in supply of Russian gas to Europe as EU leaders warned the embattled leader against foot-dragging on reform during a summit in Kiev.


REUTERS - Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko assured the European Union on Friday that Kiev would do its utmost to ensure Russian gas flows across Ukraine to Europe without a repeat of the disruption suffered a year ago. 

Yushchenko spoke after EU officials asked Ukraine to be a responsible transit partner, and to speed up economic reforms that would lift the country out of recession and bring back international financial backing. "Ukraine will manage to secure the functions of Russian gas transit," Yushchenko told a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the EU presidency, and Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

"Ukraine's mission is the guaranteed, unhindered supply of Russian gas to Europe. We will never initiate a process which would complicate the supply of gas including that in 2009/10 to the European Union," he said. "I ask you to accept this as a guarantee."

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, voicing rare unanimity with her political rival, added later after meeting the EU side: "I want to stress again that I will not allow any destabilisation of the system of ensuring natural gas to Europe and Ukraine." 

Gas war

The two sides met for their annual summit towards the end of a year which began with a winter "gas war" between Russia and Ukraine that left millions of Europeans without heating. Europe gets a fifth of its gas from Russia via Ukraine.

EU concern that there could be a repetition of the gas war persists because of the dire state of the Ukrainian economy which raises question marks over Kiev's ability to pay its monthly gas bill to Russia.

Earlier on Friday Kiev settled its November bill to Moscow, estimated at around $770 million, a spokesman for the state energy company Naftogaz said.

EU officials have also expressed disappointment at continued disputes in Ukraine that has paralysed decision-making and broken promises of reform.

Barroso and Reinfeldt stressed they wanted no new disruption of gas supplies to European consumers in the New Year but their comments fell short of full confidence that this would be so.

Yushchenko, swept to power in the 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution, wants Ukraine to become an EU member and the country is in the process of negotiating an association agreement which would open the door to free trade.

No breakthrough in the agreement was reached.

Instead, both Barroso and Reinfeldt told Ukraine to take the necessary steps to get back on track with an International Monetary Fund $16.4 billion bailout programme.

The IMF suspended this until after a Jan. 17 presidential election because of the political infighting in Kiev which has led to broken promises of fiscal prudence.

"The support of the IMF ... has played a vital role in stabilising the Ukrainian economy," Barroso said. "For the continuation of this support it is now vital that Ukraine take the necessary steps to put the IMF programme back on track."

Tymoshenko said she would speak by telephone later on Friday with IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a Ukrainian delegation would have further discussions with the Fund at the weekend.

Discord between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, his 2004 ally-turned-rival, has thrown policies off course and led to the IMF plan being suspended.

The EU, shocked that its citizens were affected by a gas dispute between two countries outside the bloc, has tried in the past year to help Ukraine's energy sector, particularly the financially ailing Naftogaz.

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