- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

KIEV | Masked, armed security agents searched the headquarters of Ukraine’s natural gas company Wednesday in a dispute between the country’s feuding leaders that could jeopardize gas shipments to Europe.

The national security service, controlled by President Viktor Yushchenko, accused his rival Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s government and its energy firm, Naftogaz, of diverting huge amounts of Russian gas. The security service ordered the raid as part of an investigation.

Mrs. Tymoshenko denied the accusations and said Mr. Yushchenko staged the search in order to get a hand on the company’s profits.

The two leaders are locked in a political battle that has impeded an effective response to the financial crisis in Ukraine, one of the worst performing economies in Europe.

The raid raised fears of a recurrence of the bitter standoff between Moscow and Kiev that left many European countries without Russian gas for two weeks in January. Debt-burdened Naftogaz was at the center of that dispute.

Mrs. Tymoshenko’s right-hand man, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov, charged that the search of Naftogaz headquarters days before a crucial payment deadline to Russian gas giant Gazprom was aimed at hindering the company’s dealings with Russia. He said the agents were seeking to confiscate documents that would prevent the company from receiving Russian gas and paying for it.

“They wanted simply to paralyze the activities of Naftogaz” and its supplies to Ukrainian customers, Mrs. Tymoshenko told reporters in Paris.

Naftogaz spokesman Valentyn Zemlyansky said the contracts were not confiscated in the raid and that Ukraine’s deliveries of natural gas to European countries would not be affected. He said the search ended Wednesday night after Mrs. Tymoshenko’s supporters won a court order to stop the probe.

Marina Ostapenko, a spokeswoman for the national security service, or SBU, said the raid was part of a criminal investigation launched this week into the purported diversion of Russian gas worth $900 million by officials at Naftogaz.

The SBU’s second in command, Valery Khoroshovsky, told parliament Wednesday that Naftogaz employees as well as top officials in Mrs. Tymoshenko’s Cabinet had improperly taken gas that Gazprom had sold to the RosUkrEnergo company in recent years.

RosUkrEnergo was an intermediary in Russia’s sale of gas to Ukraine. It was eliminated this year as part of the January deal between Russia and Ukraine.

Naftogaz must pay for February gas consumption by March 8. The company said late Wednesday it had transferred 80 percent of the payment to Gazprom.

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