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Vice President Blasts Russia...s Human Rights, Int...l Relations

By Steven Lee Myers
THE NEW YORK TIMES


MOSCOW

Vice President Dick Cheney delivered Thursday the Bush administration’s strongest rebuke of Russia to date. He said the Russian government “unfairly and improperly restricted” people’s rights and suggested that it sought to undermine its neighbors and to use the country’s vast resources of oil and gas as “tools of intimidation or blackmail.”

“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 in a speech to European leaders in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. “Other actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive, and could begin to affect relations with other countries.”

Cheney’s remarks, which officials in Washington said had been heavily vetted and therefore reflected the administration’s current thinking on Russia, appeared to lay down new markers for a relationship that has become strained and could become significantly more so in the months ahead.

The remarks were delivered in the midst of an international confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programs, where the United States has tried to enlist Russia’s help in putting pressure on or punishing Tehran. Cheney’s criticisms would seem to complicate those efforts, but they could also reflect a growing impatience with Russia’s unwillingness to back stronger measures, including sanctions, against the Iranians. Cheney did not mention Iran in his speech, which was devoted mostly to a triumphant celebration of the expansion of democracy in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

A senior administration official said the speech emphasized the desire of the White House to continue working with Russia in many areas, including Iran, even as it voiced its concerns. The official requested anonymity because he did not want to be seen as speaking for the vice president.

Asked if the remarks risked alienating the Kremlin at a crucial moment in negotiations on Iran at the U.N. Security Council, the official said in a telephone interview, “There’s never a good time.”

Cheney’s remarks also previewed what is shaping up as a tense meeting between President Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin at a gathering of the Group of 8, the leading industrialized nations in St. Petersburg in July. Some in Washington, notably Sen. John McCain, have called on Bush to boycott the meeting as a signal of displeasure with Putin’s anti-democratic course, though Cheney did not address that matter on Thursday.

Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, disputed Cheney’s remarks, calling them unfounded and “completely incomprehensible.” At the same time, he discounted the message Cheney sent, saying it would cloud neither the coming meeting between Bush and Putin nor their relationship generally.

“The relations between the two presidents are much more constructive than these statements,” Peskov said in a telephone interview. “And they are more oriented to the future.” Indeed, the two men spoke by telephone just this Monday, and they agreed then on the need to cooperate closely on the Iranian issue, the White House said.