Wednesday, April 20, 2005

MOSCOW — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, arriving in Russia for the first time since assuming her post, yesterday voiced her sharpest criticism yet of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule and said he should stick to his pledge not to seek another term in office.

At the same time, Miss Rice said that Russia must not be isolated internationally, and offered President Bush’s blessing to Moscow’s hosting next year’s high-profile summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries.

She said, ?Some of the responsibilities that attend that kind of inclusion mean they have to deal with the problems,? and ?trends have not been positive on the democratic side.?

?The centralization of state power in the presidency at the expense of countervailing institutions like the Duma [parliaments lower house] or an independent judiciary is clearly very worrying,? Miss Rice told reporters on her plane as she flew to Moscow.

She specifically referred to Mr. Putin’s decision last year to end the direct election of regional governors and to curtail their powers.

To her list of concerns, the secretary added the ?absence of independent media on the electronic side,? while noting the better state of the print media.

She urged Mr. Putin, with whom she is scheduled to meet today at the Kremlin, not to seek a third term in office when his current mandate expires in 2008 — a move that would require changing the Russian Constitution.

?Obviously, it would not be a positive development if there were some changes in that circumstance,? she said. ?I don’t expect that there will be. We take President Putin at his word.?

Mr. Putin has said publicly that he will not run in 2008, but he has left the door open to a possible candidacy in 2012, pointing out that the constitution only prohibits three consecutive terms. Miss Rice did not address that possibility.

On the economic front, she said energy would be high on her list of topics during talks with Russian officials, noting the worldwide concern about oil supplies.

?I do think there has been some inconsistency about how foreign investment will or will not play in some of those efforts to develop? in Russia, she said.

The secretary — a Soviet, then Russia, specialist in academia and later at the White House — said she was confident that, whatever the problems with Russia’s transition toward democracy, it will never return to its Soviet past.

She referred to the current state of affairs in the vast country as a ?mixed picture,? adding that ?there is a considerable amount of individual freedom? without offering details.

She said her comments were ?meant in a spirit of friendship and discussion, not in a spirit of criticism.?

But the Russian government rarely hides its displeasure with such statements, which it calls interference in its internal affairs.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was scheduled to address reporters today standing beside Miss Rice at his guest house, canceled that appearance late yesterday.

Soon after the secretary landed in Moscow, two bomb threats in and around her hotel diverted her motorcade to the U.S. Embassy, while she went to the ambassador’s residence.

After a delay of about two hours and careful sweeping of the entire Renaissance Hotel by Russian security forces, she had dinner with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

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