Stepashin Waits to Get Kiev's Debt

KIEV -- Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin failed Friday to secure an expected agreement for Ukraine to pay its energy debts to Moscow, but hoped to reach a deal over the next month.

"We have given orders that this problem be resolved within a month," Stepashin said at a news conference after talks with Ukrainian Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko in Kiev.

The debt is one of the problems still dogging ties between the two former Soviet republics, even though they have signed a friendship treaty intended to end years of bickering.

Some tensions also linger over the status of Ukraine's Crimean port of Sevastopol and the Black Sea Fleet, and Moscow is worried Ukraine might eventually be lured into NATO.

Stepashin, making a visit that was postponed several times by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, has put improving political relations alongside developing economic ties at the top of his agenda.

Stepashin said Ukraine owed $1.8 billion for Russian natural gas supplies. Ukrainian estimates have put the figure owed to Russian gas monopoly Gazprom at closer to $1 billion.

"There is one figure for the debts - $1.8 billion," said Stepashin, who arrived in Kiev on Thursday. Pustovoitenko, sitting beside him, did not comment.

Stepashin said Ukraine could pay off some of what it owes Moscow by providing Russia with industrial goods and services, as well as agricultural products.

He said Russia was prepared to continue oil and gas supplies to Ukraine provided it received timely debt payments.

Ukraine is the biggest consumer of Russian natural gas, importing about 55 billion cubic meters a year.

Stepashin and Pustovoitenko signed three economic documents, including an agreement on cooperation on tourism and a protocol on cooperation between the two countries' customs services.

Stepashin's trip is important for Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who has underlined the need for good ties as he seeks the support of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in a presidential election in October.

After a meeting to discuss the status of former Soviet republic Moldova's breakaway Transdnestr region with the Ukrainian and Moldovan presidents, separatist Transdnestr leader Igor Smirnov and representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, Stepashin was due to fly to Sevastopol to visit the home base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, returning to Moscow on Saturday afternoon.