Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Ankara late Saturday to lay groundwork for the meeting in Europe later this month between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ms. Rice reiterated her concern about the state of democratic reform in Russia but said isolating that country would be counter-productive.
Russia was not on the itinerary of Ms. Rice's first foreign trip, an eight-day swing through the Europe and Middle East.
But Mr. Lavrov agreed to meet the Secretary here to prepare for the Bush-Putin summit February 24 in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.
The Bush administration has been openly critical of what U.S. officials see as an authoritarian trend by the Putin government, including curbs on independent media, a re-concentration government power in Moscow, and concerns about the implications of the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, deposed head of the Yukos oil company.
At a news conference as she ended a visit to Warsaw and headed to Turkey, Ms. Rice reiterated those concerns, saying it is important that Russia make clear to the world that is intent on strengthening the rule of law and the role of an independent judiciary, and permitting a free and independent press to flourish. "These are all the basics of democracy, and it is no secret that we have had concerns about some of the developments in Russia. We will continue to talk to the Russians about it,because we really do believe that a more democratic foundation in Russia, as Russia makes a transition from a totalitarian state to a democratic state, that a firmer foundation for that will indeed strengthen and underscore and put real further substance into a deepened relationship with the democracies in Europe and indeed with the United States," she said.
The Secretary of State said despite those concerns the United States continues dialogue with Moscow on the whole range of issues including a just completed round of talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Ms. Rice's deputy-designate, aimed at helping Moscow join the World Trade Organization.
In a subsequent talk with reporters flying to Ankara, Ms. Rice said trying to isolate Russia by, for instance, opposing its WTO accession would be the wrong approach since its membership in such institutions would promote economic liberalization and democratic development.
She said while domestic trends in Russia have recently been less favorable, the United States will not stop working on and talking about the issue, and it continues to be an important part of the bilateral dialogue.
President Bush vowed in his inaugural address two weeks ago to make progress on democracy a test of U.S. relations with every ruler and every nation around the world.
A senior State Department official said Ms. Rice and Foreign Minister Lavrov conversed over dinner, in English, for about two and a half hours. He said they tasked experts to prepare the summit agenda, though he said both Presidents will be able to raise any issue they want, in an open and honest manner, at the Bratislava meeting.