Kuchma Plans To Fire Energy, Nuclear Chiefs

KIEV -- President Leonid Kuchma will issue decrees sacking the heads of Ukraine's top nuclear and energy bodies, his top security aide told a news briefing Wednesday, but experts said it would do little to help the troubled sector.

Volodymyr Horbulin, secretary of Kuchma's policy-making Security and Defense Council, told journalists Kuchma had not yet officially ordered the move but indicated it was imminent.

Horbulin said the decision to remove Viktor Chebrov, who heads the Derzhkomatom nuclear body, and Bohdan Babiy of the oil and gas sector, had been made at a council meeting on the weekend.

"The president has not signed these decisions yet, but there will be decrees. Absolutely. There will be changes in the government and these will affect the head of the Derzhkomatom and the head of the State Oil and Gas Committee," Horbulin said.

But some experts were not impressed by the news. "Don't overestimate Babiy's importance. He has minor influence on the gas-trading scheme. Everything was and is decided above him. He is just a pawn," one gas trader said.

Among problems mentioned by Horbulin were unpaid bills to Ukraine's five nuclear power plants, nuclear fuel shortages, and a monopolized system where the government picks gas suppliers.

"We should create a situation of no monopolies [in gas trading] -- especially at the regional level," Horbulin said, referring to a scheme where up to a dozen gas distributors have the right to sell gas from neighboring Russia to consumers.

Premier Pavlo Lazarenko, linked by critics to United Energy Systems of Ukraine, the biggest gas distributor, has defended the scheme, saying it eased energy debts to Russia.

But experts say traders have created new debts to Russia's Gazprom monopoly, despite recent optimism about current payments which accompanied the rescheduling of a $3.5 billion debt for supplies between 1993 and 1995.

"Despite official statements about the absence of debts for Russian gas supplies, debts do exist in fact, though the state does not take responsibility for them," the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies said in a report this week.