Naftogaz, Gazprom Dispute Amount of Payment Arrears

KIEV -- Ukraine's state energy firm Naftogaz said Wednesday that it had gas payment arrears of $2 billion to intermediary RosUkrEnergo, raising its previous debt estimate, though Gazprom puts it higher.

The debt has sparked a new diplomatic row between Ukraine and Russia, sending worries through Europe, which is about 25 percent dependent on Russian gas, and fears of another switch-off in supplies.

But Gazprom, which puts the arrears at $2.4 billion, said it will try its best not to repeat the brief cutoff that happened in early 2006.

"We will take into account all the lessons of that situation and make every effort possible to prevent events developing along that scenario," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told reporters in a conference call.

Kupriyanov stood by Gazprom's estimated debt figure of $2.4 billion, which includes $430 million for September deliveries, $800 million for October, $840 million for November to date and penalties of $340 million for late payments.

Naftogaz, which is currently negotiating next year's price for the gas on which Ukraine depends, maintains it is lower.

"Our unfulfilled financial plan [the debt] is 10 billion hryvnias at a rate of 5.05 to the dollar," deputy chief Ihor Didenko said, Unian news agency reported.

Kupriyanov declined to say after two days of talks in Moscow how much Ukraine had promised to repay by Dec. 1.

He also said Ukraine and Russia could stick to an agreement for a three-year transition to world market prices -- rather than an abrupt rise to $400 per 1,000 cubic meters from $179.50 now -- only if outstanding bills were settled now.

"If we are switching to the market price not gradually but from Jan. 1 of the next year, that price for Ukraine may exceed $400 per 1,000 cubic meters based on the current European price," he said.