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Cheney defends criticism of Putin

SHANNON, Ireland -- Vice President Dick Cheney, wrapping up an overseas trip that produced sparks in Moscow, defended his criticism of President Vladimir Putin of Russia as measured in tone. ''It's more important that you have open, honest, frank discussions about your views," Cheney said yesterday.

''None of us wants to see Russia as an enemy," Cheney said 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 measures 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 Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. ''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 the CBS program ''Face the Nation." Russia is hosting the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg in July.

Cheney 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 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."

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