Rice pitches democracy to Kremlin

Secretary of state urges Russians to develop open media, rule of law

April 21, 2005|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOSCOW - Making her first visit to Russia as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice met with top Russian leaders yesterday to stress U.S. hopes that the Kremlin will hew closer to democratic ideals such as the rule of law and independent news media.

Rice's visit to Moscow comes as concerns within the Bush administration run high over recent signs that the Kremlin is bent on concentrating power, including President Vladimir V. Putin's decision last year to abolish the election of governors and instead have them appointed by the Kremlin.

Many observers believe that Russia's biggest test of its commitment to the rule of law will come next week, when a Moscow court announces its verdict in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man and an oil magnate accused of tax evasion and fraud. The case has been widely viewed as engineered by the Kremlin because of Khodorkovsky's political alignment with Putin opponents.

Though there was no indication that the Khodorkovsky case came up in discussions Rice had with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Rice said development of democracy and rule of law in Russia were discussed with Lavrov. "I had an opportunity to affirm for [Lavrov] the interest that the U.S. has in a strong and confident Russia that is ... developing in terms of its own democratic development and in the development of the rule of law in the political and economic spheres," Rice said at a briefing she held with Lavrov after their talk.

Rice's meetings with Putin and Lavrov focused on a variety of issues, including preparations for President Bush's summit with Putin in Moscow in early May during Russia's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

However, the debate over Russia's adherence to democratic ideals took center stage during Rice's visit. Appearing on Russia's Ekho Moskvy Radio, Rice tried to soften her remarks about the Kremlin's record on democracy, saying she realized that the democratization of Russia was a work in progress that needs time.

"We understand that Russia is finding its own way, and we respect that," Rice said. "All that we are saying is, for the U.S.-Russian relationship to really deepen and for Russia to gain its full potential, there needs to be democratic development."

The gradual muzzling of the Russian media, particularly television, during Putin's five years in office has been a long-standing concern of the Bush administration. None of Russia's national television networks is independent. Leading television journalists such as Leonid Parfyonov and Savik Shuster, both known for tackling politically sensitive issues, have been taken off the air.

Lavrov said media freedoms were discussed during his talks with Rice, though he added that Washington needs to back up its concerns with specific allegations of government interference with the media. "If there is anything of concern from the other side, we are ready to discuss this - based on concrete examples," he said.

The Bush administration also has grown increasingly concerned over Putin's attempts to centralize power. Armed with the law change that eliminated the election of governors, Putin in recent weeks has appointed several governors seen by most as Kremlin-allied. The December 2003 parliament election, decried by international observers as being tainted by media bias and candidacy nullifications that favored the Kremlin, put Russia's legislature firmly under Putin's control.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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