Prime minister slams law banning any handover of Ukraine's gas pipelines

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday criticized a law banning any handover of Ukraine's gas pipelines, a day after his party supported it.

"It is just a political game. We have such laws and they were adopted long time ago. The law offered nothing new," Yanukovych told his government.

On Monday, the 450-seat parliament approved by 430 votes a law prohibiting any change in ownership of Ukraine's gas transport system or property of Ukraine's state gas monopoly, Naftogaz.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin talked about setting up a joint venture with Ukraine to manage gas transit pipelines in Ukraine and to explore gas in Russia.

After Yanukovych called the proposal promising, the opposition accused him of intending to hand over Ukraine's gas pipelines to Russia and demanded explanations. On Monday, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko secured cross-party support for the law after staging a protest in parliament.

On Wednesday, Yanukovych denied all the accusations, noting that talks with Russia were held regarding the construction of new pipelines. "We have never talked with Russia about the existing gas transport system," said the premier.

Ukraine transports up to 80 percent of Russian gas to Europe through its territory. Russia has already secured partial control of gas pipelines in Belarus and expressed a desire to receive joint ownership of pipelines in Ukraine in exchange for cheap gas.

Relations between Ukraine and Russia have cooled since Western-leaning President Viktor Yushchenko came to power after the 2004 Orange Revolution, promising to take this ex-Soviet country into the European Union and NATO.

Last year the two countries engaged in a bitter dispute over natural gas prices, resulting in Russia temporarily turning off the taps until Kiev agreed to a twofold price increase. It was widely seen as punishment for Ukraine's pro-Western policies, reports AP.

But after Yanukovych became prime minister in August, he pledged to mend ties with Russia. Under his rule, Ukraine signed a deal with Russia keeping gas prices for 2006 fixed at US$130 (EUR 100) which is the cheapest price proposed by Russia for other ex-Soviet republics. It is widely believed to have been negotiated at the cost of ceding to greater Russian influence, including a commitment to slow Kiev's bid to join the World Trade Organization until Moscow has first entered it.

"We should look forward and stand for friendly relations with our strategical partners instead of playing political games and hurting the state and a people," said Yanukovych, referring to Russia.

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