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Rice Urges Russia to Stick with Democracy

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, right, are seen during a meeting in Moscow

Visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has urged Russia to stay the course of democratic development, saying it will benefit all nations, including Russia. Ms. Rice made the appeal during closed-door talks at the Kremlin Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Ms. Rice to the

Kremlin for the first time in her capacity as Secretary of State and said he hoped her special affinity for Russia would help further bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow.

In brief comments on Russian television following their talks, President Putin only made mention of progress.

Without elaborating, the Russian president said he and Ms. Rice discussed a number of issues of bilateral and international interest, ahead of President Bush's scheduled visit to Russia for May 9 festivities marking the end of World War II in Europe.

During her two days in Moscow, Ms. Rice also held what she called positive talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other senior Russian officials.

Earlier, in a interview on Russia's Echo Moscow radio, Secretary Rice said the U.S.-Russian relationship is not a zero sum game, with one side losing, when the other side wins.

Ms. Rice reiterated that message in brief comments to reporters. She says in order for the bilateral relationship to prosper, there must be continued democratic development.

"Russia has been experiencing a kind of concentration of power in the presidency, in the Kremlin, really at the expense of countervailing institutions like a strong legislature, or an independent judiciary, or perhaps most importantly truly independent media," said Ms. Rice. "And this means that whatever the intentions of President Putin, or those around him, you don't have the ability of those other institutions to provide a check on power."

Ms. Rice also called for greater transparency and rule of law in Russia, adding that the United States would be watching closely next week, when a verdict is expected in the trial of former Yukos chief, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed for allegations of widespread corruption and fraud.

Critics of the Kremlin widely view the case against Mr. Khodorkovsky as retaliation for his open support and funding of opposition political parties in Russia. Ms. Rice said the United States and the international investment community hope the verdict will be one that, quote, inspires confidence.

At the same time, Secretary Rice praised Russia for being, what she called, a strategic partner in the global war against terrorism and the fight to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

She says solid progress has been made in fighting the spread of weapons of mass destruction, but she says more can and should be done to advance this effort. Namely, she says the United States would like to see Russia agree to open up its nuclear facilities to greater U.S. inspection, before Presidents Bush and Putin meet in May.

Secretary Rice also rejected calls that Russia be isolated for its failure to move faster on the democratic reform front.

"I see, the United States sees, nothing to be gained by isolating a Russia that is still in transition," she added. "What we need to do is to be very clear with the Russians that the deepening of U.S.-Russian relations is in large part dependent on common values and on continued democratic development in Russia."

Secretary Rice next heads to Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, for a NATO foreign ministers meeting.