A Congressional hearing on Russia last Thursday reverberated with concerns over the deteriorating state of democracy in the world's largest country. Meanwhile, the U.S. government says it will continue cooperating with the Kremlin wherever possible, but, at the same time, will continue to criticize Russia and defend U.S. principles, when necessary.  VOA's Ivana Kuhar has more.

Participants in a Congressional hearing on U.S. relations with Russia generally agreed that Washington and Moscow still cooperate closely on a number of critically important issues. But the experts also voiced serious concerns for Russia's backsliding on individual freedoms and democratic institutions.

Republican Congressman Christopher Smith from New Jersey offers his comments on the situation, "I am afraid Russia today may be slipping backwards. The Russian economy is booming, but Russian democracy seems to be falling below the level of many developing countries."

Smith says he is alarmed by the repression of the opposition in Russia and the diminishing right to protest. He says the decline in media freedom is diametrically opposed to Russia's professed commitment to foundations of a democratic state.

A Democratic congressman from Florida, Alcee Hastings, chairs the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the premier Congressional body for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms worldwide. Hastings said, in Putin's Russia, the Kremlin is making all decisions, effectively bypassing the people, the parliament and the judiciary. "Despite President Putin's lip service in support of democratic institutions and civil society, we now see a political agenda centrally planned in Moscow."

Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas says Russia's behavior in the international arena has been equally troubling. In a written statement, Brownback contends Moscow is seeking to intimidate its neighbors, particularly those that choose to pursue closer ties to the West.

A U.S. presidential candidate, Brownback says he is alarmed by Russia's use of energy as a means to exert political pressure on its neighbors and worried about the political implications of European states being overly dependent on Russia's energy.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried presented the Congressional panel with the Bush administration's objectives in its relations with Russia. "Ours might not be a full strategic partnership, but it includes partnership on many strategic issues. The administration wants Russia to be a partner in the world, and we want Russia to be strong, but strong in 21st century terms: with strong, democratic and independent institutions in and out of government."

Fried said it is imperative that the two countries work together wherever possible, "even when such cooperation may prove challenging."  The U.S. will, says Fried, push back when necessary in defense of American values, interests and friends.

"We do not exempt Russia from our belief in the universal potential of freedom, and we also have Russia in mind when we say that we seek an open world characterized by partnerships with like-minded countries."

Assistant Secretary of State Fried lauded the U.S.-Russian partnership in a number of critical areas, such as counterterrorism and nonproliferation.  He said the U.S. is committed to an ongoing dialogue with Russia, to smooth over differences and bridge the rifts where they might exist.