Vice President Dick Cheney, in remarks that caused a stir in neighboring Russia, accused President Vladimir Putin Thursday of restricting the rights of citizens and said that "no legitimate interest is served" by turning energy resources into implements of blackmail.
Cheney's sharp remarks — some of the administration's toughest language about Moscow — came two months before 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," Cheney told a conference of Eastern European leaders whose countries once lived under Soviet oppression, and now in Russia's shadow.
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 said 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," 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.
"And no one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor, or interfere with democratic movements."
Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of a Russian State Duma committee, said he believes Cheney's remarks at the Vilnius forum are subjective and do not reflect the real situation in the former Soviet republics.
Cheney's remarks "hardly corresponds to many realities of the political processes that we see on the post-Soviet territory today," he said.
"The United States has to deal with an absolutely different Russia today - a Russia that has restored its real sovereignty in many areas and is pursuing a course on the world arena that meets mainly its own national interests," Kokoshin added.
Russian Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said he believes Cheney tried to discredit Russia in the run-up to a G8 summit scheduled for July in St. Petersburg.
"I believe his criticism of Russia for trying to dismantle democracy in our country is absolutely baseless, but I am sure that Cheney expressed the opinion of only part of the U.S. political elite, but not that of the top leader of that country," Zhirinovsky said.
Russia rattled nerves across Europe last winter when the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom cut off supplies of natural gas to Ukraine. An agreement eventually ended the impasse, but it raised questions of Russia's dependability as a supplier of energy.
Gazprom supplies about one-quarter of the natural gas consumed in Europe and 80 percent of that goes through Ukraine.
Officials said the remark concerning territorial integrity was meant to apply to Georgia and Moldova, both former portions of the Soviet Union where the administration says Russia is playing an unhelpful role in solving separatist conflicts.
Cheney spoke to the Vilnius Conference, a gathering of leaders from the Baltic and Black Sea regions.
The vice president blended his criticism of Putin with a reaffirmation of President Bush's decision to attend this summer's Group of 8 summit meeting in Russia.
Putin will serve as host of the meeting of leaders of the world's largest industrialized nations, and some American politicians have urged Bush not to attend.
"We will make the case, clearly and confidently, that Russia has nothing to fear and everything to gain from having strong, stable democracies on its borders," the vice president said.
Any criticism of Russia seemed restrained in contrast to the words 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.
Cheney said he had hoped to meet in Lithuania with Belarus' opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, but he was recently jailed by authorities in Minsk. "The regime should end this injustice and free Mr. Milinkevich, along with other democracy advocates held in captivity," he said.
Much of Cheney's speech was an exhortation to the people and leaders of countries that long lived under the occupation of the Soviet Union, and a reassurance that the United States will stand with them.
"In these 15 years, the Baltics have shown how far nations can progress when they embrace freedom, serve the interests of their people and hold steadily to the path of reform," he said.
"Reform is an uneven path, but it is not chaos; indeed, the surest way to invite constant political social and economic upheaval is to reject the hard but necessary choices."
Cheney began his day at breakfast with Yushchenko, and said the United States wanted "to do everything we can to be of assistance in the days ahead."
Yushchenko responded by saying that recent "free and fair elections" for parliament and local offices marked significant progress in his country's path toward democracy.
"Probably for the first time, Ukrainian authorities were highly assessed by ... the international community, including the Americans," said Yushchenko.
Cheney had meetings scheduled throughout the day with a number of other regional leaders.
On a six-day trip through three countries, Cheney has stops later in the week in Kazakhstan and Croatia.