- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Vice President Dick Cheney accused Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday of restricting the rights of citizens and said that “no legitimate interest is served” by turning energy resources into implements of blackmail.

Mr. Cheney made his sharp remarks — some of the administration’s toughest language about Moscow — two months before President Bush travels to Russia for the annual summit of industrialized democracies. After angering Russia earlier this year with criticism that it was using its energy reserves as a political weapon, the administration has tried to avoid provoking Russia as Washington seeks the Kremlin’s cooperation in confronting Iran.

“In Russia today, opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade,” Mr. Cheney told a conference of Eastern European leaders whose countries once lived under Soviet oppression, and now in Russia’s shadow.

Mr. Cheney’s speech blended praise for the progress Eastern European countries have made toward democracy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with an exhortation to continue on the same path.

“The democratic unity of Europe ensures the peace of Europe,” he said.

He said Russia has a choice to make when it comes to reform, and that in many areas, “from religion and the news media to advocacy groups and political parties, the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of the people.”

Other actions “have been counterproductive and could begin to affect relations with other countries,” Mr. Cheney said, mentioning energy and border issues.

“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 said.

Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of a Russian State Duma committee, said Mr. Cheney’s address “hardly corresponds to many realities of the political processes that we see on the post-Soviet territory today.”

The vice president blended his criticism of Mr. Putin with a reaffirmation of Mr. Bush’s decision to attend the Group of Eight summit meeting in July in St. Petersburg.

Any criticism of Russia seemed restrained in contrast to the words Mr. Cheney used to describe the political situation in Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenko. He said Belarus suffers under “the last dictatorship in Europe” and that its people are denied basic freedoms.

Mr. Cheney said he had hoped to meet in Lithuania with Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, but authorities had jailed him in Minsk. “The regime should end this injustice and free Mr. Milinkevich, along with other democracy advocates held in captivity,” he said.

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