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BELARUSIAN ECONOMY MINISTER SAYS TALKS WITH RUSSIA OVER PIPELINE OPERATOR TO RESUME. Belarusian Economy Minister Nikolai Zaichenko said on 12 December that the country's natural gas pipeline operator Beltransgaz and Russia's natural gas monopoly Gazprom have resumed negotiations to set up a joint venture, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The negotiations had been suspended for a year due to disagreements over Beltransgaz's assets. Zaichenko said the two sides have agreed to have an independent arbiter assess Beltransgaz's value, and that the Belarusian government will buy back the 0.103 percent stake sold to the company's staff in a privatization campaign. Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller said on 9 December that the successful completion of the talks would give Gazprom "control over Belarus's entire gas transportation system."Miller also named the restarting of negotiations over Beltransgaz as one reason Gazprom is continuing to deliver gas to Ukraine at discounted prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). BW

WHO OFFICIALS ARRIVE IN CRIMEA TO HELP WITH BIRD FLU OUTBREAK. Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) arrived in Ukraine on 12 December to evaluate a recent outbreak of avian flu in the Crimea region, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The WHO experts plan to review and evaluate measures taken by Ukrainian authorities to battle the virus and to prevent it from spreading to other areas. The Ukrainian Health Ministry said on 9 December that it had detected bird flu cases in the region. Preliminary tests from a Russian laboratory established that the bird-flu outbreak in Crimea was caused by the H5N1 strain of the virus, which is also dangerous to humans and killed nearly 70 people in Asia earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2005). Poultry imports from the region have been banned and vaccinations of the population are under way, RIA-Novosti reported. BW

HEAD OF UKRAINIAN STATE GAS COMPANY REAPPOINTED. The Ukrainian government on 12 December reappointed Oleksiy Ivchenko as head of the state gas company Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Interfax-Ukraine reported the same day. On 9 December, Ivchenko was fired from his post of first deputy fuel and energy minister, which he had combined with the job of Naftohaz head. Some Russian media speculated at the time that the move indicated a possible softening of Ukraine's position in tense gas talks with Moscow since Ivchenko was a key player in those talks, reported on 12 December. But Ukrainian officials said it was part of ongoing changes under way at the ministry, under which the first deputy post will no longer be filled by the head of Naftohaz. BW

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SAYS RUSSIA'S GAS TRANSIT RIGHTS GUARANTEED. Viktor Yushchenko said on 13 December that Ukraine has given Russia "unconditional" guarantees that natural gas can be transported across its territory to Western Europe, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Ukraine has given government guarantees of transit and these guarantees are unconditional," he said. Yushchenko added that he is confident that Kyiv and Moscow will find a mutually beneficial solution to the gas price issue. "Ukraine is ready to pay for natural gas on purely market principles, but after a gradual transitional period," Yushchenko said. Gazprom has been supplying natural gas to Ukraine under a barter agreement for $50 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom is seeking to raise the price to $160 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is roughly the market price in Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 December 2005). Yushchenko spoke as a Ukrainian delegation led by Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov left for Russia for talks. BW