Rice tries to reassure Putin on U.S.But she urges Russia to foster freedoms
VILNIUS, Lithuania Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered reassurances on Wednesday to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and to listeners on a popular Moscow radio station that the United States would not supplant Russian influence in its neighborhood despite growing American friendship with countries in the region.
But in a long day of talks and interviews in Russia, before flying to Lithuania for a NATO meeting, Rice kept up her persistent suggestions that Russia needed to do better to foster economic and political freedoms, focusing in particular on the energy sector and Russia's prosecution of a leading energy tycoon.
Rice said that the seizure of Yukos, the oil conglomerate, and the prosecution of its executives "shook people's confidence" in Russia's transition to democracy and a free economy, and that she had told Putin and other leaders that investors needed reassurance "that there is indeed rule of law" affecting businesses and investments.
Her remarks came in advance of what many expect to be a guilty verdict and perhaps a long sentence against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Yukos founder, later this month, and also rising complaints from American oil companies that they have been barred from participating fully in oil and natural gas ventures in Russia.
Rice, echoing these executives' complaints, noted that at a time of rising oil prices worldwide, Russia, a leading oil producer rivaling Gulf countries in output, could help itself and also help the world economy by increasing energy supplies.
"It's a sector that could be performing, I think, better," Rice told reporters on her plane to Vilnius, adding that Russia had to put forward "rules that people can understand" and that were "applied consistently over time" in a way that did not disadvantage foreign investors.
The comment appeared to be a reference to Russia's decisions in recent years to cancel foreign participation in energy exploration and impose new rules requiring foreign oil companies to have a minority position in partnership with Russian investors.
Her comments were among the strongest of any American officials directed at Russia on energy, apparently reflecting sharpening concern in Washington not only about Russian business practices but also the adverse effect of high oil prices.
Aside from discussions on oil, Rice had a full agenda of issues, some of which she said she made progress on in her visits. Among these was the stalled talks with Russia to carry out a joint effort to dismantle Russian nuclear weapons so that they do not fall into the hands of terrorists.
Talks on a joint effort have snagged over the issue of administration demands that Russia immunize Americans from liability for damages if there is any kind of accident or disaster growing out of the effort. Rice said she came to Moscow with new ideas to move these talks along.
She also said she discussed Russian participation in the Middle East peace process, negotiations with Iran to get it to dismantle its suspected nuclear weapons program, Russia's attempt to open its economy to qualify for the World Trade Organization and steps the two countries can take to combat terrorism.
These issues and others are also expected to be on the agenda for President George W. Bush's visit to Moscow in May to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Rice held meetings at the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry, but her biggest public appeal for Russians to understand that the United States bore them no ill will as it expanded its influence and military presence in the region came at an interview of Ekho Moskvy, an independent radio station.
Station officials said that its audience was about two million across Russia and through the Internet, and they say it is one of the last independent outlets in the broadcast media. Yevgenia Albats, a columnist who participates in the station's programming, said the station was grateful for Rice's visit because it provided "security" that it would not be shut down.
Rice had a half-hour interview in which she answered questions about expanding American military presence in Georgia, Azerbaijan and other areas on the periphery of Russia and about the fact that its support for democracy had led to the overthrow of governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Alexei Venediktov, the show's host, asked her if the United States was attempting to export democracy the way the old Soviet Union sought to export socialist revolution. "There's an important difference here," she said. "You do not actually have to export democracy."
She explained that democracy was something that rose from within a state, though the United States had supported nongovernmental organizations and civil institutions in some countries to move the democratic process along. She said fears that the United States was trying to "supplant" Russia in the region was a 19th-century view of things.
"I would hope that the Russian people would understand that the United States has no desire to see Russian influence in these areas diminished," she said on the radio. "In fact, we see this as not a zero sum game but one in which everyone has much to gain."
Later she said that Russian ties to these countries should remain "very close."
Rice bantered occasionally with Venediktov in Russian, which she studied as an academic, but she apologized that she felt too intimidated by Russian grammar to feel comfortable to speak at length.
In Lithuania, Rice kept up her theme that democracy was spreading throughout the old Russian sphere, and fired a shot at what she said was one country in the old Soviet Union that remained authoritarian in nature, Belarus.
Sitting next to President Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania, she said, "Belarus is really the last true dictatorship in central Europe and it is time for change to come to Belarus."