Russian officials and diplomats reacted angrily Thursday to a summit of former Soviet republics and allies where U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Moscow for backtracking on freedom and bullying its neighbors.
Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin voiced annoyance about the fact that Russia hadn't been invited to the conference of Baltic and Black Sea Fleet ex-Soviet nations and Moscow's former Warsaw Pact allies.
"We would like to see Russia figure at the summit as an important positive factor of global politics, not as an object for scrutiny," Karasin told reporters.
Cheney, speaking at the conference that brought Eastern European leaders to Vilnius, Lithuania, said that in Russia 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."
He also warned Moscow against using its energy resources to blackmail its neighbors — an apparent reference to Russia sharply rising a price for its gas supplied to Western-leaning Ukraine amid a sharp dispute that led to a brief halt of gas exports to other European nations early this year.
Karasin did not directly comment on Cheney's statement, but several Kremlin-connected lawmakers and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev harshly denounced his remarks. Their comments reflected increasing irritation at American criticism and what many Russians see as U.S. meddling in the nation's affairs.
Andrei Kokoshin, the head of the Russian parliament's committee for relations with other ex-Soviet republics, said that the United States should respect Russia's legitimate interests.
"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 said, according to Interfax.
Another Russian lawmaker, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, dismissed Cheney's comments as "absolutely false accusations" and said they reflected the desire of certain U.S. political circles to discredit Russia ahead of the Group of Eight summit in St.Petersburg in July, Interfax reported.
Some U.S. congressmen and others in the West have said that the rollback on democracy under Russian President Vladimir Putin makes Russia unfit for hosting the G-8 summit.
Russian-U.S. relations have soured in recent years because of Washington's concerns about curtailing of democratic freedoms in Russia and disagreements over politics in the former Soviet republics and global crises including Iraq, Iran and the Mideast peace process.
Gorbachev, who has recently warned that hawks in Russia and the West were eager to see a replay of the Cold War, harshly criticized Cheney's statement on Thursday.
"Cheney's speech looks like a provocation and interference in Russia's internal affairs in terms of its content, form and place," Gorbachev said, according to the Interfax news agency.