The European Commission proposed Wednesday that the EU improve stability on its eastern doorstep by improving relations with Ukraine and five other ex-Soviet republics, countries Moscow regards as its backyard, AP reported.

The commission said the EU has "a vital interest in seeing better governance and economic development" in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine by reducing Russia`s sway over those nations.

The European Commission urged EU governments to offer free trade, association accords leading to economic assistance, security and defense consultations, and far-reaching economic integration with the 27-nation European Union.

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The report proposes to triple EU aid to the six countries to euro1.5 billion by 2020. It is silent on EU membership — something Ukraine wants.

The report is to be discussed by the EU leaders at a March summit.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Moscow`s war with Georgia last summer was a reminder of Russia`s influence in former Soviet republics.

The proposed Eastern Partnership is "not about drawing a new division of Europe," he told reporters. "We want to support reforms that (ex-Soviet republics) are willing and ready to undertake. The time is ripe to open a new chapter in relations with our Eastern neighbors."

The European Commission`s report reflects an EU-Russia standoff that has intensified in recent years, notably due to energy disputes.

Russia — which has vast gas and oil reserves but invests little in their development — seeks to boost its sway over countries with large Russian-speaking populations.

The EU, which gets about one-third of its oil and about 40 percent of its natural gas imports from Russia, hopes to become less dependent on Moscow.

That is one reason the EU has expressed concern about Russia`s commitment to democracy and wants to pull Russian neighbors closer with promises of economic growth.

The report said the EU must seek "diversification of energy routes" by enabling the ex-Soviet nations to build new and better connected pipelines and oil and gas storage facilities.

The EU wants to see a gas pipeline from the Caucasus fully skirting Russia. Russia is pushing for deals under which Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan will ship their Caspian Sea gas through Russia.

The EU report warned this would make energy supplies more vulnerable.

It said stepping up relations is only possible if there is "sufficient" progress toward democracy, the rule of law and human rights. This is relevant for Belarus whose authoritarian regime is shunned by the EU but has good relations with Moscow.

The idea for an Eastern Partnership resulted from French President Nicolas Sarkozy`s push this year for a Mediterranean Union linking the EU to Israel and its Arab neighbors. That has been watered down due to objections in Germany and other countries that believe it is more crucial for the EU to reach out to eastern neighbors.

Associated Press