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Europe Angry at Russia and Ukraine Because of Gas Dispute

In the wake of the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine, the European Union is once again questioning Moscow's credibility as a reliable energy partner.

EU governments had only recently decided to resume partnership talks with Moscow, put on hold for three months after Russia's brief war with Georgia.

Now, as a result of the gas dispute and amid fears over energy security, the EU is re-evaluating its relationship with Moscow and with former Soviet satellites.

The gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine sparked European Union mediation. The EU was desperate to get Russian natural gas to hundreds of thousands of European homes, left without heating during one of the coldest winters in years.

But the dispute has also provoked European anger over a neighbors' conflict that spread beyond their borders.

Angry EU officials have questioned the credibility of both Russia and Ukraine as reliable energy partners.

European Union Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has even suggested suing the two rivals. "I would like to convey a very clear message to Moscow and Kiev. If the agreement sponsored by the EU is not honored as a matter of urgency, the Commission will advise EU countries to take this matter to the courts," Barroso said.

The brief war between Russia and Georgia last August soured EU relations with Moscow.

But afterwards, and until Russia halted supplies of natural gas, the EU was keen to warm up relations with Moscow.

By December last year, EU governments had resumed key partnership talks with Russia.

And the EU extended a hand of friendship to six of its eastern neighbors: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The EU said it wanted to promote "good governance, prosperity and stability" in the region, by offering the chance for partnership agreements.

Even though there was no offer of EU membership, EU officials went so far as to deny that Brussels was seeking to expand its sphere of influence.

"The Cold War is over, and so when there is no Cold War, there should not be spheres of influence," Barroso said. "We are against the idea of spheres of influence. We believe this is a wrong concept of a past period, because I believe that all countries have the right to decide what way they should go."

For Georgia at least, according to Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili, Europe's influence is needed. "Certainly at this stage we don't talk about membership, because we know that we are not ready, Europe is not ready for that, but this is the way we are hoping to go, to achieve our goal, and this is through modernization, strengthening our democracy, strengthening our democratic institutions, and through cooperation," he said.

Cooperation is also essential for Europe, says Nicu Popescu, Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Think of any family that lives in a house, and of course the neighborhood it lives in matters very much for its security, its prosperity, for the security of its children," Popescu said.

Although the EU has not been able to truly exert its influence in the region, it does have a game plan, analysts say.

"The EU tries to build up a presence, economic, political presence through engagement, understating some of the democracy-related messages, in the hope once the EU is much more present on the ground, it will be able to effectively pursue a democracy- related agenda in the eastern neighbourhood, in 5 or 6 years," Popescu added.

One question for the EU now is: can it depend on a region that it needs for its energy, but which stands outside its borders?