May 4, 2006

Cheney rebukes Russia

By Matt Spetalnick

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

"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 two former Cold War rivals.

Cheney also took aim at Moscow's power politics with its
energy reserves at a time of record world prices, a trend
Washington says Russia is using to bully its 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 Gazprom, the world's top producer, could divert
supplies to Asia if it is barred from the European market.

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 that Iran
curb its nuclear ambitions. Russia opposes any sanctions.

It could also make for tense moments when Russian President
Vladimir Putin hosts his first summit of the G-8 industrialized
nations in July. President Bush has promised to confront Putin
directly about Russian democracy.

Cheney said opponents of reform in Russia were "seeking to
reverse the gains of the last decade" by restricting democratic
rights and warned Putin that 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 the St.
Petersburg summit that Moscow had "nothing to fear and
everything to gain" from stable democracies on its borders.


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

Hammering Russia plays well with Bush's conservative base
at home, where his approval ratings have hit a low of 32
percent. Cheney's poll numbers are even lower.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also addressed the
conference and, like Cheney, referred to tensions with Russia.

Taking a swipe at Russia for keeping troops in fractious
former Soviet republics like Georgia and Moldova, Cheney said:
"No one can justify actions that undermine the territorial
integrity of a neighbor."

Russia, which has complained about Washington stalling its
entry to the World Trade Organization, suspects the U.S. policy
of promoting global democracy is really an instrument to set
itself up 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 into office.

Solana made clear Europe hoped Belarus, a key Russian ally,
would follow suit. Cheney called Belarus the "last dictatorship
in Europe" and urged the release of opposition leader
Aleksander Milinkevich and other pro-democracy activists.

"A climate of fear prevails under a government that
subverts free elections," he said. "There is no place in a
Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind."

He also said Russia had rolled back on freedoms ranging
from "religion and the news media to advocacy groups and
political parties."

Reflecting worries about Russia, Lithuanian President
Valdas Adamkus told the summit: "The threat of new Iron
Curtains in minds and on the ground has not disappeared."

Lithuania, which regained independence in 1991 after the
collapse of the Soviet Union, was Cheney's first stop. He also
planned to visit Kazakhstan and Croatia.

(Additional reporting by Patrick McLouglin)