Czech prime minister meets Putin as gas dispute festers
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, acting as current European Union president, met Saturday in Moscow with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a bid to get Russian gas flowing again to western Europe amid ongoing differences between Kiev and Moscow in their price dispute, dpa reported.
Putin was cited in the talks as blaming Ukraine for having deepened the crisis further.
The Czech premier, according to EU delegation sources, presented Putin with a fifth draft of an official mandate to establish a team of international observers to monitor the flow of gas to the EU.
Topolanek had come to Moscow with a draft which had been approved by Ukrainian leaders - he had met Friday with President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko - for such a mandate.
The Czech leader said in Moscow that he would "remain so long in the region until the gas is flowing again."
The EU has urged Russia immediately to restore gas supplies to Europe after satisfying one of Moscow's key demands in the gas dispute by sending a team of observers to Ukraine.
But the taps remained shut as representatives of the two countries' state-owned monopolies, Gazprom and Naftogaz, worked to hammer out details on the observers' mission, while publicly exchanging accusations that the other was causing more delays.
A deal brokered by the EU on Thursday and Friday still hung in the balance as Gazprom and Naftogaz failed to reach a written agreement on the deployment of additional Russian and Ukrainian observers to each other's territory.
The EU mission, initially consisting of 18 senior EU officials and experts from the European gas industry, is tasked with verifying that no Russian gas is siphoned off by Ukraine while on its way to European customers.
An advance team of eight EU technicians, led by Filip Cornelius, a senior European Commission official, was on the ground in Kiev.
Cornelius made clear restoration of gas supplies to Europe would take time, and - equally importantly - political will on the part of Russia and Ukraine.
The EU observers could technically begin trips to pipelines as early as Saturday, but a large number of "organizational issues" remained to be resolved before gas could flow, he said.
The EU observers are to act as independent monitors at the six main natural-gas pipeline crossing points from Russia to Ukraine, and at the Naftogaz headquarters.
EU member states in central and southern Europe continued to be hard hit by Russia's shut-off of all gas supplies through Ukraine, with Slovakia relying on gas supplies from Poland and EU neighbour Serbia seeking emergency help from Germany, Austria and Hungary.
By far the most critical situation, though, is faced by non-EU members Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Moldova, which have no reserves left.
Other seriously affected EU countries such as Greece, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland and Romania, either have reserves that can last several weeks or have been able to resort to alternative sources of energy, EU officials said in a statement.
About a quarter of the EU's gas needs are met by Russian gas, 80 per cent of which reaches European clients via Ukraine.