Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday made the strongest statement to date of U.S. concern about legislation in the Russian parliament that would limit activities of non-governmental organizations. U.S. officials fear the proposed curbs would deal a severe blow to democratization efforts in Russia.
U.S. officials had expressed misgivings about the draft legislation before. But Ms. Rice's public statement, at a news conference in Kiev, was the highest-level expression of American concern to date, and it followed direct U.S. appeals to President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials to at least soften the measure.
The draft law, which would restrict foreign funding for Russian non-governmental groups and make it difficult for foreign human rights and other organizations to register, was approved by the Russian parliament, the Duma, on its first reading last week.
The measure, which would require two further readings and President Putin's signature to become law, would also give the Russian government wider powers to close down NGOs deemed suspicious.
The secretary of state made her comments at a joint news appearance Wednesday with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
She said the United States has raised the issue with authorities at all levels of the Russian government and hopes that the importance of NGOs to a stable, democratic environment is understood by Kremlin authorities. "Democracy is built, of course, on elections and it's built on parliaments and it's built on principles like rule of law and freedom of speech. But it is also built on the ability of citizens to associate themselves freely and to work to bring their government into a particular direction. And the role of nongovernmental organizations that have been working in Russia and in other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union are simply trying to help citizens to organize them selves better, to petition their government to make changes in the policies that affect their very lives," she said.
Secretary Rice said civil society is active and hard at work in Ukraine and that is one reason the Bush administration has such hope and optimism for that country.
A senior official who spoke to reporters during Ms. Rice's flight from Kiev to Brussels said a U.S. delegation including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicolas Burns raised the issue in private in Moscow late last week.
He said the U.S. delegation was told that the Putin administration intends to modify the legislation.
But he said American officials are not confident this will actually occur, in part because the move to curb Russian NGOs comes amid other anti-democratic trends including what he called a "squeeze on the media."
Aides to Mr.Putin have defended the proposed law as necessary to fight money laundering and groups connected to terrorism.
Some Russian legislators have also endorsed NGO curbs in order to prevent a repeat in Russia of the peaceful revolutions that brought reform governments to power in Georgia and Ukraine.
On another issue, the senior official said Russia has no reason to worry about an accord Ms. Rice concluded Tuesday in Bucharest giving U.S. forces access to a Romanian air base on the Black Sea.
The official said the accord is fully consistent with U.S. obligations under the 1990 European conventional forces limitation accord, and NATO understandings with Russia.
The 100-member U.S. headquarters group at the base would be the first American forces permanently based in a former Warsaw Pact country. As many as 15-hundred other U.S. troops will be at the base on a rotating basis.
The issue could be raised at the NATO-Russia council session to be held here following Thursday's regular December NATO foreign ministers meeting.