Mosciow/Kiev: Russia and Ukraine faced another day of sparring over gas supplies on Wednesday and two European Union states, cut off for a freezing week by the row, launched missions to plead for Russian gas flow to be restored.
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso called the crisis “unacceptable and incredible” and warned the EU executive would advise the bloc’s firms to sue Russian and Ukrainian energy companies unless gas supplies were restored quickly.
Russia began pumping gas meant for Europe via Ukraine on Tuesday, but the EU said little or no gas was flowing yet to other countries downstream suffering urgent energy shortages.
Russia accused Ukraine of deliberately cutting gas to Europe, but Kiev said Russia had so far provided so little gas there was not enough pressure in the pipelines to pump it on.
“Such small volumes ... do not allow for further transportation of gas as there is insufficient pressure,” Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko told a cabinet meeting.
The crisis has hit 18 countries in the depths of winter, shutting down many factories and leaving householders shivering.
“If the agreement sponsored by the EU is not honoured, the Commission will advise EU companies to take this matter to the courts,” Barroso told the European Parliament.
Two of the worst-hit EU states, Bulgaria and Slovakia, sent their prime ministers to Moscow and Kiev in a fresh effort to get gas supplies restored.
Eleven days left
Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said his country had 11 days of gas reserves left.
“After 12 days, we will be obliged to resort to measures never seen in our history. May I simply ask how long this will go on?” he asked Ukraine’s Tymoshenko.
Slovakia, which gets almost all its gas from Russia, declared a state of emergency on 6 January, under which gas deliveries to large clients were reduced. About 1,000 companies were forced to shut or cut production.
Tymoshenko said her country could do little to help. “Ukraine does not have sufficient gas. We do not have our own supplies,” she told Fico.
Fico said he was passing on to Tymoshenko a request by the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, for talks between the premiers of Ukraine and Russia on restoring gas supplies to Europe.
Fico is due in Moscow later to meet Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin alongside Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev and Moldovan Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanii.
Stanishev is under pressure to secure supplies for his country as domestic reserves are dwindling and public anger is mounting against his Socialist-led government.
A deal brokered by the EU, which gets a quarter of its gas from Russia, had been intended to get supplies moving on Tuesday, with international monitors in place to ensure that Ukraine was not siphoning off any gas, as Moscow has alleged.
Russian state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom declared force majeure on gas exports to Europe on Tuesday, meaning circumstances beyond its control prevented it from meeting its obligations to clients.
Gazprom is demanding Kiev hand over $614 million for unpaid gas bills and pay $450 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas in 2009. That is similar to rates paid by EU customers but a big rise on last year’s price of $179.5.
Analysts in Kiev say Ukraine, saddled with debt and hard hit by the global slowdown, cannot afford that price.
Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz on Wednesday declined a request by Gazprom to supply almost 100 million cubic metres to the Balkans and Moldova, proposing alternative routes.
Naftogaz, in a note sent to Gazprom, said Ukraine had proposed directing gas to the Pisarevka and Valuiki compressor stations, rather than the Sudzha station proposed by Gazprom.
The gas row reflects poor political relations between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow is vehemently opposed to moves by Ukraine’s pro-Western leadership to join the US-led NATO alliance.
Gazprom’s Deputy CEO Alexander Medvedev accused the United States of pulling the strings. “It looks like ... they (Ukraine) are dancing to the music which is being orchestrated not in Kiev but outside the country,” he said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack rejected the charge as “totally without foundation”.
Ukraine’s economy - based on steel and chemical exports - has been hit hard by the global slowdown and its hryvnia currency has experienced sharp falls.
Turkey said it did not plan any cuts in domestic gas distribution or gas exports to Greece.