Cheney sharply criticizes Russia



Russian officials took exception to the vice president's remarks.
VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) -- Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday accused Russia of cracking down on religious and political rights and using its energy reserves as "tools of intimidation or blackmail." It was a hard slap at Vladimir Putin as the United States seeks Russia's cooperation in punishing Iran.
Cheney's criticism -- some of the administration's toughest language about Russia -- came just two months before President Bush joins Putin in St. Petersburg for a summit of major industrial powers. Cheney warned that Russia's backsliding could harm Moscow's relations with the United States and Europe.
"Russia has a choice to make. And there is no question that a return to democratic reform in Russia will generate future success for its people and greater respect among fellow nations," the vice president said in remarks to Eastern European leaders who govern in Moscow's enormous shadow.
Reaction
Russian officials reacted angrily.
"Cheney's speech looks like a provocation and interference in Russia's internal affairs in terms of its content, form and place," former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin expressed annoyance that Russia had not been invited to the conference of former Soviet republics and allies.
A Russian lawmaker, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, dismissed Cheney's comments as "absolutely false accusations." He said Cheney had expressed the opinion "of only part of the U.S. political elite" but not that of Bush.
The White House said Cheney's criticism was a reiteration of concerns expressed by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Early this year the administration angered Russia with criticism that the Kremlin had used its energy resources as a political weapon by sharply raising natural gas prices to Western-leaning Ukraine amid a sharp dispute that led to a halt of gas exports to other European nations. An agreement eventually ended the impasse, but it raised questions of Russia's dependability as a supplier.
Main obstacle
Washington has since tried to avoid provoking Russia, during sensitive negotiations over the international response to Iran's disputed nuclear program. Russia stands as the main obstacle to tough penalties or other measures to deter Iran from pursuing nuclear technology the West says is part of a drive to build a bomb.
Russia is a permanent, veto-holding member of the U.N. Security Council and has said it is opposed to tough punishment for Iran, a major trade and investment partner. Russia recently rebuffed U.S. requests to end or scale back nuclear cooperation and arms deals with Tehran.
Rice has said it is too soon to tell whether Russia will allow the Security Council to act against Iran.
Cheney's address was the centerpiece of his six-day trip to Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Croatia. He held individuals meetings Thursday with the leaders of Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Georgia.
In his speech, Cheney said opponents of reform in Russia "are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade" after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire.
"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 her people," Cheney said.
"Other actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive and could begin to affect relations with other countries," he said.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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