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Russia Comments on US Vice President's Criticism of Russian Human Rights Restrictions

A top Russian official has refused to comment directly on Russian media reports that have characterized U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's strong criticism of Russia as the start of a second Cold War. Cheney's remarks, made Thursday at a forum of leaders of formerly communist-ruled countries, have reverberated in Moscow, where a Kremlin spokesman called them incomprehensible.

Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at a summit of Baltic and Black Sea leaders in Lithuania, a stop on his six-day tour of former Soviet bloc states to promote democratic reforms.

Cheney praised the progress made by most former Soviet nations, but criticized opponents of reform in Russia for restricting the rights of Russian citizens. "Other actions by the Russian government have been counter-productive and could begin to affect relations with other countries."

Cheney said Russia has nothing to fear and everything to gain by returning to democratic reform.

Richard Weitz, a Russia expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, said Cheney's comments underscore America's commitment to a democratic Russia.

"This was a very useful opportunity. It was in a location right adjacent to Russia. Very senior level attendees. It was the Vice President, rather than the President himself. It was not as aggressive an escalation as could theoretically have taken place. But it certainly was a major statement."

Cheney also criticized Russia's decision to cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine earlier this year during a pricing dispute. "No legitimate interests are 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."

Mr. Weitz said Russian energy is a pillar of 21st century Russian foreign policy, much as its military power was in the 19th century and its nuclear capabilities were during the Cold War. "Energy is actually a very useful tool. So it is almost natural that they are going to use that to influence their foreign policy and to obtain the objectives that they want."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to comment directly on Moscow media reports that Cheney's comments signal a new Cold War. Instead, he criticized the forum at which Cheney spoke. "There are forums which, when looking at their work, create an impression that they are convened not according to principles I mentioned before (to reflect the desire of the states and to pool their efforts to achieve common benefits) but for the sake of uniting against someone."

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who hosted the summit, denied the meeting was anti-Russian.

Observers believe the rhetoric against Russia's record on democracy will continue. President Bush is expected to raise the issue when he meets with Russian President Putin at the annual summit meeting of the Group of Eight Nations in St. Petersburg this July.