By Anya Tsukanova (AFP)
KIEV — Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Friday issued a rare rebuke to the Kremlin by describing as unfriendly a Russian plan to build an ambitious new gas pipeline that would bypass Ukraine’s territory.
Yanukovych has worked hard to improve relations between Moscow and Kiev since defeating the leaders of the pro-Western Orange Revolution in presidential elections this year.
But in an interview with Agence France-Presse and two other foreign news agencies in Kiev, he said building the South Stream pipeline would only have made sense when the former anti-Kremlin leadership was in power.
“It’s being shown to us that our partners can get by without Ukraine. This is unpartner-like and I have already expressed this to our partners in Russia and the European Union,” he said.
“Do not exclude Ukraine as a partner,” he added.
“There was reason to behave like that when Ukraine frightened Europe and Russia. But these times have passed.”
Under the former presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, relations between Russia and Ukraine plunged to a post-Soviet low and a row over gas prices led to Europe being cut off from Russian gas for two weeks in winter 2009.
A quarter of the gas consumed in the European Union comes from Russia, 80 percent of which passes through Ukraine.
The South Stream pipeline plans to carry Russian gas under the Black Sea and into the Balkans to create a new energy route to Europe that will by-pass Ukrainian territory.
Yanukovych said that instead of the complex South Stream project, Russia and the European Union would be better off developing Ukraine’s existing pipeline infrastructure.
“We are saying let’s join together and let’s not not re-invent the wheel and go right to the bed of the Black Sea, where there may be many unpredictable aspects. Let’s build across Ukrainian territory.
“It will be many times cheaper and quicker.”
The South Stream pipeline is being backed by Russian giant Gazprom along with Italian energy company ENI and French group EDF. Gazprom has said it expects the first part to come online by December 30, 2015.
The EU executive meanwhile is backing the competing Nabucco pipeline which aims to reduce European dependency on Russian energy by transporting gas from Central Asia and the Caucasus direct to Europe.
Yanukovych’s first weeks in power saw a rapprochement with Russia of breathtaking speed, with a deal agreed to prolong Moscow’s lease on the base for its Black Sea Fleet that outraged Ukrainian nationalists.
But Ukraine appears to have imposed some limits on the improvement in ties, most notably by showing little enthusiasm for a Russian plan to merge Gazprom and Ukrainian state gas company Naftogaz.
“We cannot go along a path of absorption of the Ukrainian economy,” said Yanukovych.
The president reaffirmed that his administration aimed to take Ukraine towards EU membership and said it would be “realistic” for two sides to sign an agreement on a visa-free regime from 2012. EU citizens can already travel to Ukraine without visas.
But in a sign of some impatience with Brussels, he said the partnership with the European Union must be one of equals.
“We must not be put into a humiliating position, asking for something with an outstretched hand,” he said.
The president has made neutrality a cornerstone of his foreign policy, scrapping the previous administration’s drive for NATO membership and seeking to repeat the canny balancing of East and West of ex-president Leonid Kuchma.
“I think that a balancing of relations between the European Union, Russia and the United States is comfortable for Ukraine,” he said.