Economy

IMF 'ready to respond' to Ukraine aid bid

BRUSSELS (AP) — The International Monetary Fund will answer Ukraine's call for financial help "at this critical moment in its history," fund chief Christine Lagarde said Thursday.

In the IMF's first official statement on Ukraine since the country's political crisis intensified last week, Lagarde said a fact-finding team will go to Kiev in the coming days to assess the financial needs.

"We are ready to respond," she said. The mission will help the IMF understand the economic situation and its officials will start discussing with Ukrainian authorities what reforms would be required in exchange for emergency loans, she added.

Ukraine's finance ministry has said it needs $35 billion for this year and next to avoid default. The political turmoil since the end of last year has roiled the economy, depleted the central bank's reserves and sent its currency tumbling.

Any financial help from the IMF for the country of 46 million is likely to come with tough conditions, including demands for budget cuts, structural reforms and a devaluation of the currency to make the economy more competitive. The IMF would also likely demand a sharp increase in the price of natural gas, which the country heavily subsidizes.

Those measures are likely to be unpopular and dent the support of any new government. A currency devaluation would cause import prices to soar. More expensive energy would further eat into consumers' budgets.

Ukraine officially asked the IMF for help Thursday, Lagarde said. The IMF said it is in talks with several nations and other multilateral organizations — institutions like the World Bank or the European Union — to determine the best way of assisting Ukraine.

Ukraine has a fraught relationship with the IMF, failing to keep to the terms of earlier bailouts in 2008 and 2010. Negotiations on the conditions for a new IMF loan package are likely to last months, and officials said no deal can be reached before a stable, elected government is in place.

Officials say Ukraine will need financial assistance rapidly, even before a full IMF package can be concluded. The EU has offered to bridge that gap, while declining to specify how much money will be needed. The U.S. is also examining how it can assist.

Estimates vary, but analysts say Ukraine might need a total of $20 billion to $25 billion for 2014 and 2015, perhaps $15 billion this year and $10 billion the next. The money would help pay salaries and pensions and maturing bonds.

Ukraine had a promise of $15 billion in help from Russia — but that's on hold after parliament voted Saturday to remove pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and take the country closer to the EU instead. Kiev has received only $3 billion of Moscow's bailout cash.

On a visit to Washington, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he will discuss helping Ukraine with Lagarde Friday. Steinmeier said there are also talks with Russia about "help pledged to Ukraine not being withdrawn or canceled." If Moscow were to join the EU, the U.S. and the IMF in stabilizing Ukraine's finances, "that would be a good point of departure," he said.

Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed reporting.

Follow Juergen Baetz on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz

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