By Stephen Boykewich

The Moscow Times
Friday, May 5, 2006

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney delivering a speech at the Vilnius conference on Thursday. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus is seated to the front left.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney lashed out at Russia on Thursday, telling a Vilnius audience the country had curbed civil liberties and used its energy resources as “tools of intimidation and blackmail.”

The vice president’s remarks prompted a swift and angry response from the Kremlin.

“In Russia today, opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade,” Cheney told an audience in the Lithuanian capital that included the presidents of Lithuania, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

“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, according to the White House transcript of the speech.

Cheney, beginning a six-day trip that was to include stops in Kazakhstan and Croatia, also suggested that Russia had used energy supplies to intervene in neighboring countries’ domestic politics.

“No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation. And no one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor, or interfere with democratic movements,” he said.

Cheney also attacked Belarus, one of Russia’s closest allies.

“Peaceful demonstrators have been beaten, dissidents have vanished, and a climate of fear prevails,” he said. “There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind.”

The speech contained the harshest criticism of Russia thus far from a White House official and followed months of similar charges from U.S. political and academic circles.

U.S.-Russian relations have come under strain recently, in part because of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

The United States has pushed hard for the UN Security Council to approve economic sanctions against Iran and has reportedly prepared for military strikes. Russia, which is helping Iran develop its civil nuclear program, has sought a diplomatic solution.

A chill between Moscow and the Western-aligned governments of Ukraine and Georgia had also contributed to U.S.-Russian tensions.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking after Cheney in Vilnius, said the fate of European democracy hung on opposing Russia’s “imperial nostalgia.”

“If Europe doesn’t succeed in this, and if political forces somewhere in Moscow manage to puncture our democracy, there will be terrible results,” Saakashvili said, Interfax reported.

The Kremlin denounced Cheney’s criticism Thursday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Cheney’s comments “highly subjective” and said the Kremlin regarded them as “completely incomprehensible.”

Peskov said Cheney was applying a double standard with regard to Russia’s growing international influence as an energy provider.

“In essence, it seems that when we’re talking about U.S. or British energy companies, it’s considered business, but when he talks about us, it’s ‘intimidation,'” Peskov said by telephone Thursday.

“The [U.S.] vice president isn’t taking into account that Russian energy resources are the wealth of Russia itself. They should be used above all to advance the interests of the Russian people, not the interests of other countries,” Peskov said.

Several Duma deputies joined the anti-Cheney chorus Thursday evening.

Ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said Cheney was “spreading utterly false accusations,” while Leonid Slutsky, the first deputy chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, called the speech “ill-prepared and unprofessional,” Interfax reported.

Energy has become a sensitive topic this year, with Russia serving as president of the G8 and oil prices at record highs. President Vladimir Putin has made energy security the centerpiece of his G8 presidency.

During a summit in Tomsk last week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin responded angrily to suggestions Russia was using its vast oil and gas resources as a political weapon.

“We can hardly agree with his assessments,” Peskov said of Cheney. “There has never been, nor will there ever be, a single standard of democracy for every country.”

Peskov, perhaps unwittingly, echoed Cheney, who said in his speech: “There is no single model of democracy; our systems vary according to the unique traditions of our countries, the languages we speak and the events and the heroes of our history.”

Analysts said Cheney’s harsh words were intended largely to appease domestic critics of U.S. President George W. Bush, including many from his own party, who charge that he is ignoring anti-democratic trends in Russia.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political analyst with Kremlin ties, said the speech was largely intended for a U.S. audience. Viktor Kremenyuk, assistant director of the Institute of the United States and Canada, a Moscow think tank, added that Russian officials understood there were different factions within the administration and that Cheney represented the hard-line camp. Still, Kremenyuk said, Cheney would not have been allowed to say what he did unless the president wanted those opinions aired.

Kremenyuk’s assessment was echoed by former Security Council Secretary Andrei Kokoshin, who said Russia was pursuing a foreign policy dictated by national interest, Interfax said.

Asked how tensions between Russia and the United States would be resolved, Nikonov sounded an ominous note. “Once an escalation like this starts,” he said, “there’s no telling where it will end.”