May 4, 2006

Cheney attacks Russia on democracy

By Matt Spetalnick

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney, in one of
the Bush administration's sharpest rebukes to Moscow, accused
Russia on Thursday of backsliding on democracy and urged it to
stop using energy supplies for "blackmail."

"Russia has a choice to make," Cheney told Baltic and Black
Sea leaders at a summit in Vilnius, calling on Moscow to return
to democratic reform at a time of increasingly chilly relations
between the United States and Russia.

He said opponents of reform in Russia were "seeking to
reverse the gains of the last decade" by restricting democratic
rights and warned President Vladimir Putin some of Moscow's
actions could hurt relations with other countries.

But Cheney told leaders of post-communist nations with a
history of domination by the former Soviet Union: "None of us
believes that Russia is fated to become an enemy."

He said G-8 members planned to make clear at a summit in
St. Petersburg in July Moscow had "nothing to fear and
everything to gain from strong stable democracies on its

Cheney's harsh remarks could further antagonize Russia,
which holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council where
Washington intends to push for a resolution demanding Iran curb
its nuclear ambitions. Russia opposes any sanctions.

The address by Cheney, a powerful, independent-minded vice
president known for a hard line on Russia within the
administration, marked an intensification of U.S. and European
Union criticism against Moscow for its record on democracy.

Cheney also leveled a strong attack on the government in
Belarus, calling for the immediate release of opposition leader
Aleksander Milinkevich as well as other opposition members.

"The world knows what is happening in Belarus. Peaceful
demonstrators have been beaten, dissidents have vanished and a
climate of fear prevails under a government that subverts free
elections... there is no place in a Europe whole and free for a
regime of this kind."


Cheney, in a speech mostly devoted to praising Eastern
European countries for democratic reforms, also took aim at
Moscow's use of its vast energy supplies for what Washington
says is sometimes the bullying of neighbors.

"No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become
tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply
manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation," he

Russia, which is trying to harness its position as an
energy giant, drew international criticism earlier this year
when it briefly turned off its gas taps to Ukraine in a pricing
dispute that disrupted supply to Europe.

Moscow has also warned Europe the Russian state gas
monopoly -- the world's top gas producer -- could divert its
supplies to Asia if it is barred from the European retail gas

Russia suspects the U.S. policy of promoting global
democracy is really an instrument to establish itself as the
dominant power in the post-Soviet states.

In the past two years, peaceful revolutions in Ukraine and
Georgia have brought pro-Western governments to power.

Cheney said Russia, meanwhile, had restricted rights.

"In many areas of civil society -- from religion and the
news media, to advocacy groups and political parties -- the
government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of
the people," he said.

Cheney was on six-day trip billed as a pro-democracy tour.
Lithuania, which regained independence in 1991 after the
collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was the first stop. He
also planned to visit oil-rich Kazakhstan and the former
Yugoslav republic of Croatia.