Ukraine may again face gas payment problem

NOVO-OGARYOVO: Ukraine could again have problems paying for Russian gas, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Friday, raising the spectre of new supply interruptions to Europe this winter.

Russian gas supplies were cut off to a dozen European countries for two weeks in January as part of a bitter dispute over payments and prices between Russia and Ukraine.

"It seems we are again having problems with the payment of our energy supplies (from Ukraine) which is extremely sad," Putin said, following a telephone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko.

Putin accused the European Union of failing to prop up the ex-Soviet nation at a difficult time.

"The European Union has not given money to Ukraine," Putin said at a meeting with his governing United Russia party. "Not a single cent, not a single hryvnia."

But he said Ukraine did have sufficient funds due to its assistance package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and blamed pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko for preventing the transfer of funds.

"According to the Ukrainian prime minister, Yushchenko is blocking normal cooperation between the central bank and the Ukrainian government and blocking the transfer of funds," Putin said.

Earlier Friday Putin and Tymoshenko, who never made a secret of their strong relations, discussed the two countries' gas cooperation, with Putin stressing the need for Ukraine to honour its contractual obligations.

Haggling over gas supplies and prices has in the past years become a familiar problem ahead of winter.

The latest row comes just months before Ukraine is set to elect a new president in polls in which both Tymoshenko and Yushchenko will run.