VILNIUS, May 4 (Reuters) US Vice President Dick Cheney today accused Russia of backsliding on democracy and urged it to stop using its vast energy supplies for ''blackmail'' in one of Washington's sharpest rebukes to Moscow.
''Russia has a choice to make,'' Cheney told Baltic and Black Sea leaders at a summit in Vilnius, calling on Moscow to return to democratic reform at a time of increasingly chilly relations between the two former Cold War rivals.
Cheney also took aim at Moscow's power politics with its energy reserves at a time of record world prices, a trend Washington says Russia is using to bully its neighbours.
''No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolise transportation,'' he said.
Russia, which is trying to harness its position as an energy giant, drew international criticism earlier this year when it briefly turned off its gas taps to Ukraine in a pricing dispute that disrupted supply to Europe.
Moscow has also warned Europe the Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom, the world's top producer, could divert supplies to Asia if it is barred from the European market.
Cheney's harsh remarks could further antagonise Russia, which holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council where Washington intends to push for a resolution demanding that Iran curb its nuclear ambitions. Russia opposes any sanctions.
It could also make for tense moments when Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts his first summit of the G-8 industrialised nations in July. US President George W Bush has promised to confront Putin directly about Russian democracy.
Cheney said opponents of reform in Russia were ''seeking to everse the gains of the last decade'' by restricting democratic rights and warned Putin that some of Moscow's actions could hurt relations with other countries.
But Cheney told leaders of post-communist nations with a history of domination by the former Soviet Union: ''None of us believes that Russia is fated to become an enemy.'' He said G-8 members planned to make clear at the St. Petersburg summit that Moscow had ''nothing to fear and everything to gain'' from stable democracies on its borders.
INCREASING PRESSURE The address by the powerful, independent-minded vice president, known for a hard line on Russia within the Bush White House, marked an intensification of US and European Union criticism of Moscow for its record on democracy.
Hammering Russia plays well with Bush's conservative base at home, where his approval ratings have hit a low of 32 per cent.
Cheney's poll numbers are even lower.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also addressed the conference and, like Cheney, referred to tensions with Russia.
Taking a swipe at Russia for keeping troops in fractious former Soviet republics like Georgia and Moldova, Cheney said: ''No one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbour.'' Russia, which has complained about Washington stalling its entry to the World Trade Organization, suspects the US policy of promoting global democracy is really an instrument to set itself up as the dominant power in the post-Soviet states.
In the past two years, peaceful revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia have brought pro-Western governments into office.
Solana made clear Europe hoped Belarus, a key Russian ally, would follow suit. Cheney called Belarus the ''last dictatorship in Europe'' and urged the release of opposition leader Aleksander Milinkevich and other pro-democracy activists.
''A climate of fear prevails under a government that subverts free elections,'' he said. ''There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind.'' He also said Russia had rolled back on freedoms ranging from ''religion and the news media to advocacy groups and political parties''.
Reflecting worries about Russia, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus told the summit: ''The threat of new Iron Curtains in minds and on the ground has not disappeared.'' Lithuania, which regained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was Cheney's first stop. He also planned to visit Kazakhstan and Croatia.
REUTERS SY PM1903