- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell took an unexpected public swipe at Russia’s domestic and foreign policy just before meeting with President Vladimir Putin yesterday, a sign that the Bush administration is adopting a tougher stance toward Moscow.

Mr. Powell, who met with Mr. Putin and senior Russian officials at the start of a brief Moscow stopover yesterday, wrote in a front-page editorial in the influential daily Izvestia that recent events have called into question the Kremlin’s commitment to the rule of law, press freedoms and noninterference in the affairs of Russia’s neighbors.

“Certain developments in Russian politics and foreign policy have given us pause,” said Mr. Powell, in an English text of the op-ed piece released by the State Department.

“Russia’s democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Political power is not yet tethered to law. Key aspects of civil society — free media and political party development, for example — have not yet sustained an independent presence,” he added.

Even couched in diplomatic generalities, Mr. Powell’s remarks were the most pointed to date by a top U.S. official since the Dec. 7 Russian elections that gave a party closely tied to Mr. Putin an overwhelming edge in the lower house of parliament.

The United States and other Western observers said media coverage of the election was slanted heavily toward pro-government candidates, with all of the national television networks now under state control.

The State Department also has expressed concerns about the vigorous prosecution of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an outspoken Putin critic, in the past six months on fraud charges.

Mr. Powell’s commentary also contained a veiled warning about recent Russian pressure on its neighbors, including a territorial dispute with Ukraine and clashes over Russian troop deployments in Moldova and Georgia.

Saying he recognized Russia’s legitimate interest in secure borders, Mr. Powell added, “We recognize no less the sovereign integrity of Russia’s neighbors and their rights to peaceful and respectful relations across their borders, as well.”

Celeste Wallander, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Mr. Powell’s editorial marked a “clear shift in the public tone coming out of the State Department.”

“What’s interesting is that he’s not just saying Russia still needs time to achieve democracy. He’s saying Putin has actually taken steps that have set Russia back,” she said.

Cliff Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Nixon Center, said lower-level American officials, including Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow, already had expressed misgivings about Mr. Putin’s policies on democracy, the separatist war in Chechnya and foreign policy. But Mr. Powell is the most senior administration official to date to raise such concerns.

“I wouldn’t have expected the tone [Mr. Powell] took, because there had been a reluctance to criticize Russia when we have needed it support on terrorism, Iran and other issues,” Mr. Kupchan said.

“But I think the trend got to a point where the secretary felt he couldn’t help but criticize certain negative developments in Russia,” he said.

Mr. Putin, in brief remarks to reporters in Moscow before a private meeting with Mr. Powell, shrugged off the criticism, saying only Russia would remain a “stable and predictable” U.S. ally.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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