Vice President Dick Cheney has accused Russia of restricting the rights of its citizens and using its vast energy resources for political blackmail. At the same time, Cheney praised those leaders as their countries try to emerge from the Soviet era. He made the remarks during a speech at a conference of East European leaders in the Baltic republic of Lithuania.

In a strongly-worded speech, Vice President Cheney said that "opponents of reform" in Russia are seeking to "reverse the gains" made over the last decade.

In contrast, he praised what he called the progress East European countries have made since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Most of the leaders of those countries also attended the conference in the former Soviet republic of Lithuania.

Cheney said the democratic unity of Europe is the best way to insure peace on the continent, and criticized the Kremlin's increasing grip over the broadcast media and political life.

He added that the Kremlin uses its near-total control over gas pipelines as a political weapon.

"Other actions by the Russian government have been counter-productive and could begin to affect relations with other countries: no legitimate interests are served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolise transportation. And no one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor," he said.

Most of Europe remains highly dependent on Russia for its gas, and felt the pinch in January when the state-run company Gazprom briefly cut supplies to Ukraine due to a price dispute.

This also caused shortfalls throughout Europe and led to harsh criticism of Russia just as it began its year-long leadership of the G-8 group of nations, promising to focus on "energy security".

Cheney began his day in Lithuania by having breakfast with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, whose rise to power during the so-called "Orange Revolution" in December 2004 angered the Kremlin.

Mr. Yushchenko has expressed hopes his country might one day be able to enter the European Union and even the NATO military alliance.

"Developments in Ukraine are extraordinarily important," continued Cheney.  "All of us give support to the development of freedom and democracy, and have been impressed at what our friends in Ukraine have achieved, and want to do everything we can to be of assistance in the days ahead."

The vice president did offer some reassurances to Moscow, noting that President Bush will attend this summer's G-8 summit meeting in Russia despite calls from some members of Congress to boycott the meeting.

He said Mr. Bush will make the case to Mr. Putin that "Russia has nothing to fear and everything to gain from having strong, stable democracies on its borders."

However, Cheney had nothing but harsh words for Belarus and its longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as "Europe's last dictator".

The vice president said he was due to meet top Belarussian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich at the Lithuania conference.

But Milinkevich is now in serving a 15-day jail term for attending an "unsanctioned" political rally last week.

Milinkevich was the main challenger against Mr. Lukashenko in the March presidential election that was not considered free or fair by most of the world community.