Russians criticized

Human rights being eroded, Cheney says


WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney, in the toughest critique of Russia from the Bush administration, accused the government of Vladimir V. Putin yesterday of rolling back human rights and using the country's oil and gas reserves as "tools of intimidation or blackmail."

Cheney told East European leaders in Lithuania that the Russian government had "unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people" and had taken other actions that may adversely affect relations with other countries.

The remarks, which were swiftly denounced by Russian politicians, are likely to increase tensions as a July summit of leading industrial nations in St. Petersburg, Russia, nears.

Cheney's criticism also could complicate the Bush administration's effort to win Russian cooperation in its attempt to persuade Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program.

The Bush administration has been increasingly critical of the Putin government's steps to rein in political opponents and the news media at home, and to consolidate its influence in its surrounding region.

Cheney's comments carried special weight because they were delivered by a senior administration figure in such proximity to Russia, analysts said.

"Russia has a choice to make," Cheney said, according to a transcript of his remarks released by the White House. "None of us believes that Russia is fated to become an enemy."

The vice president was speaking to the Vilnius Conference, a group of leaders in the Baltic and Black Sea regions whose countries used to be part of the Soviet sphere.

"This was very tough," said James M. Goldgeier, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration. "There was no attempt to soften the language."

The remarks appeared to signal that Bush intends to use the July meeting to press Putin on what the White House calls a growing "democracy deficit." It also might be an effort by Cheney, who has pressed in private administration debates for a tougher line on Russia, to influence the policy, U.S. analysts said.

Russian politicians and analysts considered the remarks a negotiating tactic aimed at weakening Russia diplomatically before the summit. They also said Cheney's speech was aimed at the Bush administration's conservative political base in the United States and at his pro-Western audience in Vilnius, who generally are skeptical of Russia's intentions.

Cheney emphasized the U.S. unhappiness that Russia has used its oil and gas supplies to apply pressure on it neighbors. This year, the Russian state gas monopoly cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine in a price dispute that also interrupted sales to customers in Western Europe.

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

He also criticized Russia's support for separatist enclaves in Georgia and Moldova, and its public opposition to Ukrainian President Viktor A. Yushchenko during the 2004 protests of electoral fraud that led to the rise of his reformist government.

"No one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor or interfere with democratic movements," Cheney said.

He condemned Belarus, a close Russian ally, as "the last dictatorship in Europe."

"There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind," Cheney said.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was installed for a third term after an election that was widely denounced as fraudulent. His leading opponent, Alexander Milinkevich, was sentenced to 15 days in prison last week on charges of leading an unauthorized rally. Cheney said he had intended to meet with Milinkevich.

Cheney does not travel abroad frequently, but when he does he often carries important messages for the administration, sometimes playing a traditional vice presidential role by speaking more bluntly than the president he serves.

Cheney's remarks cheered advocates of a tougher American line.

"We finally said something pretty straightforward at a pretty high level," said Danielle Pletka, a vice president at American Enterprise Institute.

Paul Richter and David Holley write for the Los Angeles Times.

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