Cheney defends criticism

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SHANNON, Ireland (AP) – Vice President Dick Cheney, wrapping up an overseas trip that produced sparks in Moscow, defended his criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin as measured in tone. “It’s more important that you have open, honest, frank discussions about your views,” Cheney said Sunday.

“None of us wants to see Russia as an enemy,” Cheney told reporters aboard Air Force Two on his way home after stops in Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Croatia.

The vice president praised the progress toward democracy across Eastern Europe and stressed the importance of Kazakhstan’s energy reserves. The former Soviet republic in central Asia is “one of the few places where we’re going to see an increase in oil production from a non-OPEC state over the next few years,” he said.

Cheney also said that he thought it was a mistake for countries to nationalize their energy industries, as Bolivia recently said it was doing with its natural gas resources.

Cheney has drawn criticism from Russia for saying at a conference in Lithuania last week that Putin is reversing democratic reforms and using energy reserves as blackmail to gain political leverage.

From Washington, one Putin critic lauded Cheney’s comments.

“They’re right on the mark,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “Putin wants all of the benefits of being part of the West and part of the G-8 and none of the responsibilities of democracy,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Russia is hosting the Group of Eight summit of industrial nations in St. Petersburg in July.

The vice president rejected the suggestion that his own remarks had been strident and described them as measured. He pointedly directed reporters to a speech delivered at the same conference by Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin who was sharply critical of the Russian president.

“The story of destruction of freedom in my own country, Russia, is sad,” Illarionov said. “The fall of freedom in one country is a blow to world freedom.”

Cheney told reporters that he doubted the controversy would affect Russia’s reaction to the U.S.-led drive to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

“We have a whole series of relationships ongoing at any one time. Got the G-8 coming up,” he said. “It’s more important that you have open, honest, frank discussions about your views.”

Cheney noted that he had met with virtually all the leaders who were in Lithuania for the gathering of countries in Russia’s long shadow. He said they told him in private conversations that they are concerned “that the Russians are trying to use their control of the production and transportation of gas, natural gas in particular, to obtain leverage on a lot of governments.”

Cheney headed home after attending a meeting with the leaders of Albania, Macedonia and Croatia. All three countries are seeking membership in NATO and the European Union.

Supporting their aspirations, the vice president said they and other countries like them can “help us rededicate ourselves to the basic and fundamental values of freedom and democracy.”

Seated at a diamond-shape table with Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski, Cheney thanked all three for their help in the fight against terrorism.

“We deeply appreciate the fact that all of you are already engaged alongside NATO and U.S. forces in places like Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. Albania and Macedonia have small contingents of troops in Iraq.

In his public remarks in the seaside Croatian city of Dubrovnik, Cheney did not mention any of the controversies on the path toward full membership in NATO.

Albania and Macedonia have both agreed to demands from the administration to exempt U.S. citizens from the jurisdiction of the United Nations’ International Criminal Court. Croatia, though, has not.

Apart from less than 24 hours in Kazakhstan, Cheney spent his entire trip in Europe. His stated goal was to advance Bush’s “freedom agenda.”

The vice president said it was interesting to “see what the world looks like in these particular locales” compared to 15 years ago when he was secretary of defense both before and immediately after the end of the Cold War. He noted the “extent to which they’d become strong, viable democracies,” although he added, “A lot of them still have problems and still have things they need to do.”

Cheney, asked about Bolivia’s action, said nationalization usually means countries “don’t have as vibrant an energy sector as they would otherwise, they don’t get the latest technology and they don’t get the advantages of capital investment.”

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