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Russia wonders Is critical Cheney in the picture?

By Staff
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MOSCOW, May 6 (Reuters) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today brushed off accusations by Dick Cheney that Moscow was backsliding on democracy, even questioning how well informed the US vice president was.

Lavrov, in a point-by-point rebuttal of Cheney's criticisms made in a May 4 speech, said in a 320-word statement that it was up to Russia to identify and defend its own interests.

Cheney, speaking in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, called on Russia to return to the path of democratic reform and accused its leaders of using oil and gas as tools of ''intimidation and blackmail'' against other countries.

Lavrov said Cheney may have been let down by his advisers and observed that democracy was a principle that should be upheld both internally and internationally.

''I would think that such a state official should have at his disposal the full range of objective information, but apparently he has been let down by his advisers and aides,'' Lavrov said in the statement posted on his ministry's Web site www.mid.ru.

Lavrov said Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, had been a country on the verge of collapse and argued that its greater assertiveness under President Vladimir Putin was in the vital interest of its citizens.

''What is being done now by the Russian leadership is directed towards preserving Russia as a single, integral and strong state,'' Lavrov said.

He also took a swipe at Washington's perceived unilateralism on the world stage, calling for greater consultation.

''I can agree with Mr. Cheney on the fact that he would like to see the world as a community of sovereign democracies,'' Lavrov said. ''Democracy is needed not only inside the state but on the international arena.'' COOLER TIES Ties between Moscow and Washington have cooled since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, amid differences over Iran, the war in Iraq and competition for allies in the former Soviet Union.

Cheney said the critical views he expressed to leaders from formerly communist eastern Europe reflected the thinking of U.S.

President George W Bush's administration.

His comments provoked front-page stories in the Moscow press, with one Russian paper saying Cheney had thrown a pail of cold water over the Kremlin just months ahead of the Group of Eight summit in St Petersburg this July.

Cheney's remarks came just as Russian gas monopoly Gazprom nears a decision on whether to name US oil majors Chevron and ConocoPhillips as partners in a massive gas project.

Gazprom will soon whittle down a field of five candidates to two or three to develop the Shtokman field in the Barents Sea, a project costing tens of billions of dollars to supply liquefied natural gas primarily to the US market.

Lavrov said that rather than resorting to blackmail, Russia, and before it the Soviet Union, had been a dependable source of energy for decades.

''In the past 40 years neither the USSR nor Russia ever violated a contract to deliver oil or gas abroad,'' he said. ''Evidently, this information was also not brought to the attention of the vice president.'' Reuters PM RN2045

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