Cheney accuses Russia of energy supply 'blackmail'

U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney aimed some tough talk at Russia Thursday, saying the country should not try to use its oil and gas supplies as "tools of intimidation and blackmail" to bully its customers.

U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney aimed some tough talk at Russia Thursday, saying the country should not try to use its oil and gas supplies as "tools of intimidation and blackmail" to bully its neighbours.

Cheneyalso suggested toasummit of regional leaders in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, that Russian President Vladimir Putin is rolling back progress on democratic reforms.

"Russia has a choice to make,"he said,urging Putin to recommit his governmentto reforms, rather than cracking down on its critics.

The vice-president's remarks were seen as a reaction to an incident in January that saw Russia cut off natural gas sales to Ukraineduring a pricing dispute.

That move also disrupted gas supplies toEurope. Russia's state-owned Gazprom monopoly supplies about aquarter of Europe's natural gas,80 per cent of whichtravels through Ukraine.

Pro-democracy activists have pointed out that Russia wanted tobill the pro-Western Ukrainian government four times as much forgas as it was charging pro-Moscow governments in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

"Russia has nothing to fear and everything to gain from having strong, stable democracies on its borders," Cheney said Thursday.

Hisspeech also took aim at the government in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko's administration forcibly retained power after a disputed election earlier this year.

"Peaceful demonstrators have been beaten, dissidents have vanished and a climate of fear prevails under a government that subverts free elections," Cheney told the Balkan and Black Sea leaders at the Vilnius summit.

"There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind."