Powell, Putin discuss thorny issues

Russian military moves, treatment of dissenters draw careful criticism


MOSCOW - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he had raised concerns with President Vladimir V. Putin about the Russian military campaign against rebels in Chechnya and recent actions against the media, political parties and neighboring countries.

The secretary also raised the issues before the Russian public in an essay in the newspaper Izvestia that was published yesterday morning, before Powell held seven hours of meetings with Putin and other officials at the Kremlin. Powell said he had brought up the American concerns in those sessions.

Powell told reporters that he was not trying "to interfere in internal dynamics of Russian political life" and that "it was one friend speaking to another."

But his comments were the toughest public expression by a senior American on recent developments, including the arrest of a prominent businessman and seizure of his assets, and parliamentary elections in which several parties complained about a lack of access to the news media.

In the Izvestia essay, Powell asserted that Russia had yet to achieve an "essential balance" between executive power and other parts of government.

"Political power is not yet fully tethered to law," Powell wrote. "Key aspects of civil society - free media and political party development, for example - have not yet sustained an independent presence."

The secretary also criticized "certain aspects" of the war against Chechen rebels and asserted that neighboring countries were entitled to "their rights to peaceful and respectful relations across their borders."

He mentioned no countries by name, but his comments echoed complaints that Powell heard in Georgia on Sunday about the Russian refusal to withdraw troops stationed there since the days of the Soviet Union.

Powell pointedly declined to repeat his points from the essay in the only moment when he appeared before reporters, at a Kremlin news conference with the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov.

Asked whether he regarded Powell's criticisms as interference, Ivanov was circumspect, saying merely that the secretary got "a good opportunity to get a full and clear understanding of Russia's position on many issues" and that "many doubts that might have risen with respect to some of these issues will be dispersed as a result."

On the issue of Georgia, however, the foreign minister was more forthcoming, asserting that as soon as that nation's new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, had completed forming his new government, Russia would work with him to find "solutions" on the problem of Russian troop presence.

Powell thanked Ivanov for showing flexibility, though what the minister said lacked details and echoed Russian comments surrounding its refusal to withdraw troops over many years.

The secretary's criticism of Russian conduct came amid a rising chorus of complaints in Congress and among human rights groups.

American officials have been saying that they had to tread lightly because criticism of Russian internal practices often backfires.

In addition, U.S. officials say that Russian cooperation on Iraqi debt relief and reconstruction, and on defusing the nuclear threat presented by Iran and North Korea, might be jeopardized by an overly vocal criticism.

Russian sensitivities over criticism have been well known since the days of American criticism over human rights during the Soviet era. The debate over how tough to be with the Russians on such matters has echoed for decades through Russian-American relations.

What little criticism has been voiced has not been welcomed in Moscow. The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, who has spoken of growing concerns about Russian political values, has himself been singled out for attack in the Russian media.

American concerns about recent Russian actions came to a head in the summer and fall, especially after the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian businessman and critic of the government, and the seizure of his energy company's assets. Khodorkovsky had begun saying that he would challenge Putin in the presidential election in 2004.

Khodorkovsky's jailing galvanized the international business community, and American officials said they had transmitted business concerns to the Russians over several months.

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