VILNIUS - In a speech engineered to provide a wake-up call for Europe, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney lashed out at Russia during a Vilnius conference last week, saying the Kremlin was using its vast energy reserves as "tools of intimidation and blackmail" and backtracking on its democratic achievements over the past 15 years. "No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation and blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation," Cheney said.
The U.S. vice president was no less critical of Russia's slide into authoritarianism. "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," he said.
"In Russia today, reform opponents are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade," he told the conference, entitled Common Vision for Common Neighborhood, whose participants included eight heads of state from Eastern Europe. In recent weeks, Russia and the United States have aired differences over Iran, World Trade Organization membership and Belarus. But analysts agree that the speech contained the most caustic criticism of Russia to date by a White House official. Thus the reaction from Russia was immediate and sometimes even dramatic.
Kremlin spokesmen said the speech was "highly subjective" and "completely incomprehensible." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Cheney was poorly informed about Russia manipulating its neighbors with energy supplies. He said Russia has not violated a supply contract for 40 years.
Russian media took umbrage at the Vilnius speech, with one publication claiming the Cold War had returned. But Cheney was not the only conference participant with a bone to pick. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who hopes to steer Georgia toward NATO and possibly the EU, sounded warning bells in his speech.
"The changes that have taken place in the Baltic states, Tbilisi, Kiev - they are now under an enormous threat, and the results could be terrible. There is somebody who tolerates these forces, somebody who finances and promotes them," he said.
He added ominously: "If political forces somewhere in Moscow succeed in violating our democracy, the results will be appallingâ€¦ We have to wake up altogether and understand the risk."
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who is also striving to integrate his country of 50 million people with the West, made a similar plea. "Ukraine cannot be left out of bounds, floating in uncertainty between the East and the West. The European Union should be open to those who have clearly chosen their future and done a lot to implement the principles of democracy, reinforce supremacy of law and the principles of free economy," he said.
Yushchenko feels his country is being unfairly ignored by the EU's leadership, which two years ago said Ukrainian membership in the bloc was impossible. "Ukraine is not searching for a model of new democracy. We just want to follow the example promoted in Central and Eastern Europe during the past 10-20 years," he said in a veiled reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin ideologues who have fashioned a system of "managed democracy" for Russia.
The forum was attended by leaders of Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine, as well as the EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade and Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. In fact, the conspicuous absence of a high-placed Russian official triggered accusations that the event was anti-Russian, which Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus vigorously denied.
"I have heard that this was an anti-Russian meeting. Definitely no, no and once more no. It was a meeting without Russia," he said. "But I hope, looking into the future, that we have purely expressed our wish to see [Russia] within our ranks, being constructive, assuming responsibilities for the future and enjoying the benefits of being one peaceful community."
Yury Afanasyev, director of the Russian State University of the Humanities, told the forum that he would like to see a more optimistic opinion about the situation in his country.
"I would gladly cling to something that would give me reasons to be optimistic. But when you start searching for something to hook upon to have a less gloomy view of the future, I unfortunately see nothing or almost nothing," said Afanasyev.
He expressed regret over the absence of opposition to the current Russian regime and the decadent political life in general. In Afanasyev's words, the country is governed by "various corporations," and political strategists "molding collages 's Duma, parties, courts, an election system 's admiring the collages and presenting them as institutions of democracy and civil society."
Andrey Piontkovski, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, also said that he would like to be more optimistic but noted he had no illusions regarding the Putin regime.
"The regime will simply not exist for 70 years, it will collapse far earlier due to its inner contradictions," the political scientist stressed. In his words, Lithuania, Ukraine and Georgia are seen in Russia as "a part of the damned Western world."
"An unprecedented anti-Western hysteria has been triggered in the Russian media," said Piontkovsky.