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Winter on the Way, Europeans Worry Russian Could Shut Off the Gas

Winter is coming to Europe, and across this continent of half a billion people, citizens are turning on their heating. Every radiator turned on in the European Union is a reminder of this fact: one quarter of the EU's gas needs are supplied by one foreign company alone: Russia's state-controlled Gazprom.
The Pew Research Center recently reported the majority of western Europeans distrust President Vladimir Putin, and are concerned about overdependence on Russian energy. Nina-Maria Potts reports.

Russia has been supplying Europe with energy for decades, and despite ideological differences, has been a reliable source of energy.

But recent tensions over a range of other issues, including human rights, have sparked jitters over Russia's long-term dependability -- especially as the EU has dwindling oil and gas reserves of its own.

And two winters ago Russia turned off gas supplies to Ukraine in a dispute that briefly disrupted flows to Europe.

But when Gazprom threatened to do the same again this autumn, there was one key difference: Moscow sent reassurances that Europe's energy supplies would not suffer.

European Commission energy spokesman Ferran Taradellas Espuny says Russia now takes the market it is supplying into consideration. "We are the main consumers of Russia as a supplier and of Ukraine as a transit country, so we have the right to know what is going on, if this is going to affect our security of supply, I think now they have learned the lesson."

Still, though energy continues to flow, Europe's relations with Russia face new pressures.

The radiation poisoning death of the former Russian KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, on British soil, shocked many Europeans.

As did the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, well-known for her criticism of the Kremlin. Senior EU officials are outraged over the failure of Russian investigators to convict anyone in the case.

The International Crisis Group's Alain Deletroz, says new EU leaders, such as Angela Merkel of Germany, may prove more inclined to take a tougher line with Russia. "Towards Russia you see also a tendency to be very polite all the time, to be taking aggressive political statements without really answering, but this might be changing now and we see this change happening with Mrs. Merkel."

Vladimir Chizhov is Russia's ambassador to the EU. He dismisses the notion that the Litvinenko and Politkovskaya deaths have overshadowed relations. "Well, let's first separate the real issues from the artificial ones. The latter category, among those you mentioned, is the Litvinenko case, the Politkovskaya case, those are artificial irritants rather than real."

The EU, often divided over how to tackle an aggressive Russia, talks of the need to speak with one voice, especially over energy. Brussels wants to secure and diversify Europe's energy sources, and strengthen Europe's own energy market by breaking up monopolizing energy giants.

The European Commission says that if foreign investors want to enter Europe's energy market then European companies must also be allowed the same access in Russia and other countries.

Gazprom opposed the proposal, before both sides agreed to review its implications.

Commission spokesman Ferran Taradellas Espuny says, "It's a Russian company under Russian law, the only thing we can do is to ask foreign companies, Sonatrach, Gazprom, Statoil, whatever, that want to come into our market, to respect exactly the same rules that we do."

EU efforts to speak with a single voice have long been undercut by the eagerness of many EU governments to cut bilateral energy deals with Russia.

There were particular concerns over a German deal with Gazprom to build an undersea pipeline pumping gas from Russia to Germany, bypassing Poland. And Russia's failure to ratify a key energy charter treaty, contributes to European concerns over its long-term reliability.

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov argues every energy player is both a partner and competitor. "Some people, in Europe, in the United States as well, they might see Russia more as a partner than a competitor. There are others perhaps who see Russia more as a competitor, than a partner. It's dialectics. Objectively speaking, Russia is both, so is Europe -- the European Union for Russia."

Still, EU officials are keeping a close eye on President Vladimir Putin's next move, especially in the run-up to the Russian elections.

And amidst talk of a possible new Cold War era, Europeans are relying on Russia not to turn their heating off.