May 5, 2006

Cheney stands by Russia criticism

By Matt Spetalnick

ASTANA (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday
defended his accusations that Russia was using its vast energy
reserves to bully its neighbors but said Washington wanted
Moscow to be a strong friend and ally.

The stinging rebuke -- delivered at a meeting with Baltic
and Black Sea leaders in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on
Thursday -- prompted the Kremlin to say his comments were
completely incomprehensible.

"I have not had an opportunity to study the response out of
Moscow," Cheney told reporters in Kazakhstan on Friday.

"The speech was very carefully crafted," he added,
signaling that his words had been vetted at the highest levels
of the U.S. administration.

"I made the point that we don't look upon Russia as an
enemy by any means. We want them as a strong friend and ally. I
also made clear we had some concerns with respect to the extent
to which they seem to resist the development of strong
democracies in this area represented by the governments ... at
the conference in Vilnius," he said.

Russia drew international criticism earlier this year when
it briefly turned off its natural gas taps to Ukraine in a
pricing dispute that disrupted supplies to Europe.

Russian commentators said on Friday Washington had created
an anti-Russia cordon of Western-aligned states stretching from
the Baltic almost to the Caspian Sea.

But Cheney said he was reflecting concerns he heard at the
conference and said he did not think his words would cast a
shadow over a summit of the G8 club of rich nations, which
Russia is hosting in St Petersburg in July.

"I expect the G8 conference will go forward as scheduled in
St Petersburg and we'll all benefit from a free, open, and
honest exchange of views," Cheney said.

Speaking after meeting his host, Kazakh President Nursultan
Nazarbayev, he adopted a markedly more conciliatory tone toward
Kazakhstan than Russia, expressing "admiration" for economic
and political developments in the vast Central Asian state that
is an emerging oil producer.

Kazakhstan, which was not represented at the Vilnius
conference, has failed to hold any elections judged free and
fair by international monitors since the Soviet Union broke up.

Nazarbayev has ruled since 1989 and in December won
re-election with 91 percent of the vote for another seven
years. Foreign monitors said the poll was flawed.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Cheney acknowledged
that the pace of democratic change had not been "as fast as we
would like to see" in Kazakhstan but said: "the trend in
Kazakhstan has been getting better."