Rice Says Russia Will Not Be Punished

ANKARA, Turkey -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday that Moscow's crackdown on dissent was making Russian-American relations "more difficult," a State Department official said. But Rice also signaled in public that the United States would not try to isolate Russia because of its actions.

The State Department official, speaking after a dinner between Rice and Lavrov, said the secretary cited Russia's steps to take over independent television, seize Yukos and arrest its leaders, and remove powers from governors.

He said Rice made the expression of American concerns more central to the discussion than previous American officials had with the Russians in the past.

"These things do make it more difficult to pursue a full and deep relationship," Rice told Lavrov, according to the official, who spoke at a briefing under State Department rules that required anonymity because of the confidential nature of the session being described.

In comments relayed by Russian media on Sunday, Lavrov said that despite their disagreements, Russia and the United States must not lose sight of their common interests.

"In our relations, we must always see the main thing, and the main thing now is that we really are allies in the struggle against the main modern challenges: terror, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the spread of narcotics," Lavrov said in comments broadcast on television, The Associated Press reported.

He said Moscow hopes the Feb. 24 summit in Slovakia will "give a new impulse to the development of a partnership between Russia and the United States," Itar-Tass reported. Lavrov called for concrete steps to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into terrorist hands, and said there would be bilateral talks on nuclear security, strategic stability and energy cooperation before President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush meet in Bratislava.

Earlier Saturday, Rice acknowledged to reporters on her plane here that Russia had recently fallen backward on democracy and democratic reforms, but that Putin's government would not be punished or isolated by an American cutoff of cooperation in a variety of other areas.

Those comments were themselves the most recent indication that Bush's inaugural vow to spread freedom in the world did not signify a dramatic change in the American approach with certain countries.

Rice said Bush's inaugural address would lead to American officials raising the issue but only in the context of other cooperative ventures, many of which she said would involve integrating Russia with democratic trends in the West.

"To the degree that the emphasis continues to grow in American policy and rhetoric about democracy and the importance of it, of course it becomes a central part of every discussion we have around the world," Rice said to reporters on her plane here from Warsaw.

But she also emphasized that cooperation with Russia had led to progress in combating terrorism, stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq, and to Russian willingness -- despite deep misgivings -- to accept new democratic but somewhat anti-Russian governments in Ukraine and in Georgia.

"On the matter of domestic trends in Russia, yes, I think those have been less favorable in recent times," Rice said. "We've made no secret of that, but we're not going to stop working at it. We haven't stopped talking about it, and I think it continues to be an important part of our dialogue."

The dinner with Lavrov, who flew to the capital of Turkey just to meet with the new secretary of state on her first overseas trip, was intended to pave the way for the meeting between Bush and Putin in Bratislava this month.

On her second full day of her weeklong trip to Europe and the Middle East, Rice churned through meetings in three countries -- first with civic and opinion leaders in Germany, then with Polish leaders during a three-hour stop in Warsaw, and finally Saturday night with a brief meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and the dinner with Lavrov.

On Sunday she was to meet with more Turkish leaders to discuss their concerns about the deteriorating security situation in neighboring Iraq, and then she planned to fly to Israel for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

In Poland, where Bush remains highly popular despite mounting anxiety over the presence of 2,400 Polish troops in Iraq, Rice sought to smooth relations by working on a new package of American military aid and on help in expediting the granting of visas for Poles wishing to visit the United States.

U.S. officials say that Russia has been a primary focus of all Polish-American discussions in recent years, especially as Polish leaders watched with anxiety the Russian intervention in the Ukrainian election last year. But Rice noted that after the difficulty in Ukraine, Russia moved quickly to establish relations with the government of Viktor Yushchenko as soon as it became clear that he would serve as Ukraine's president.

Russia, she said, would be "aided by the growth of democratic movements and by party building and the growth of civil society in Russia," trends that the United States can encourage by working with Russia and also working to help it join the World Trade Organization so it can integrate itself with the global economy.