Putin vows friendship to Powell despite Russia-US disputes

Posted in Russia , United States | 27-Jan-04 | Author: Matthew Lee

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin told visiting US Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday that relations between Moscow and Washington would always be predictable and stable even if the two sides had key disputes. Putin told Powell in a gilded Kremlin hall that the two sides were facing a range of disagreements on international and security issues -- and the US secretary of state agreed.
But Putin also said Russia and the United States had broken the shackles of Cold War era suspicions and grown close enough to each other in recent years for these disputes to be overcome through calm and open dialogue. "I want to reassure you once more that Russia's policies towards the United States will be stable and predictable," said Putin. "The foundation of Russia-US relations is strong," the Kremlin chief told Powell. "And although there are differences concerning foreign policy issues and defending our national interests, we have built a common ground that is strong enough to overcome these disagreements," Putin said.

Powell for his part remarked that Moscow and Washington were now candid enough with each other to iron out their differences of view in public. "We do have areas of disagreement or areas of dispute but the strength of the relationship allows to discuss these areas with candor and openness," said Powell. He came to see Putin after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov for talks that he said touched on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the volatile situations in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova from which Washington wants Moscow to remove its troops.

Powell secured a promise from Putin that Russia will soon resume talks on removing troops from Georgia -- a republic eyeing NATO membership which will soon be host to a key US-backed oil pipeline. He said Moscow vowed to resume talks as soon as the country's new President Mikhail Saakashvili completes his government and hailed Russia's "flexibility" on the issue. Powell came to Moscow after attending Saakashvili's inauguration Sunday in Tbilisi. "I was very encouraged by the minister's (Ivanov's) statement and the president's statement with respect to the relationship with Georgia and their willingness to enter into discussion with Georgia on all issues, and the issues surrounding the presence of the Russian military basis," said Powell. "I thanked the minister for the flexibility that he has shown and the president for the flexibility that he has shown on this issue," he said after meeting Putin.

But Powell entered his talks by publishing a biting opinion piece in a top Russian daily criticizing Russia's record on democracy and press freedoms. His comments in the Izestia daily were some of the most critical delivered by Washington since Washington and Moscow became partners in the "war on terror" following the September 11, 2001 attacks on US targets. "Certain developments in Russian politics and foreign policy in recent months have given us pause," Powell wrote. "Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government," Powell wrote. "Political power is not yet fully tethered to the law," he said in apparent reference to December parliamentary elections in which pro-Putin factions won a monopoly on power that allows them to see through constitutional changes.

The United States is also concerned about Russia's military and nuclear ties with Iran even while arguing that Washington and Moscow remain allies in the global war on terror. Powell said he would further bring up allegations that Russian firms sold sophisticated military technology to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq -- completing a laundry list of complaints that highlight how a partnership between the two former Cold War era foes remains tenuous. "Today Moscow and the United States can get into a fight," the Izvestia cautioned in a Monday headline. Powell said he raised all of these issues with Putin but said he did not see this as an interference in Russia's internal affairs.