Rice: Russia Must Improve Democracy for Better Ties
By Saul Hudson
WARSAW (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Saturday Russia needed to reverse what Washington considers its backsliding on democracy if Moscow wants deeper relations with the West.
The former Soviet specialist, on her first trip abroad as the top U.S. diplomat, will meet her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov later on Saturday in Ankara, where she will also press him on Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"Obviously we have concerns ... it is important that Russia make clear to the world that it is intent on strengthening the rule of law, strengthening the role of an independent judiciary, permitting a free and independent press, of course," Rice told a news conference in Warsaw, during a stopover en route to Turkey.
"These are all the basics of democracy."
Last year, the United States began voicing its concern over what it called Russia's "backsliding." Rice said she would continue to express those concerns in hopes of improving ties.
"We really do believe a more democratic foundation in Russia ... will indeed strengthen and underscore and put a real sort of substance into a deepening relationship with the democracies of Europe, and indeed the United States."
Ahead of her eight-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East meant to repair ties with partners like Russia frayed over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Rice had complained the Kremlin had amassed too much power and noted concerns over the judiciary's impartiality.
In December, the State Duma approved President Vladimir Putin's plans to scrap gubernatorial elections and allow the president to nominate governors. Putin has also allowed an apparently politically motivated case to proceed against oil major YUKOS.
Russia opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq but has also slowly sought to ease tensions over the war. Moscow cautiously welcomed Sunday's elections in Iraq in comments U.S. officials said was a sign it wanted to focus on the future.
Poland wants closer transatlantic ties and also backed the war in Iraq, where it has one of the largest non-U.S. troop contingents. But while it says they will stay as long as needed it has also set a target of pulling out by the end of the year.In Warsaw, Rice thanked Poland for its "extraordinary contribution" in Iraq.
Rice will also pressure Russia to keep on hold a fuel supply deal for an Iranian reactor as it intensifies a campaign to thwart what it says is the Islamic Republic's drive to build a nuclear bomb.
Washington fears any Russian fuel supply to a reactor Iran is building would move Tehran closer to acquiring a bomb under the cover of a civilian program.
Oil-rich Iran denies it is developing such a weapon and says its nuclear programs are for peaceful power generation needed to meet the energy demands of its growing population.
Rice, who has sought to allay fears of a possible military strike against
Iran, says Russia's decision against delivering the fuel is part of an
international diplomatic strategy against Tehran.
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