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U.S. won't penalize Russia, Rice says

ANKARA, Turkey—President Bush will not penalize Russia for its back-sliding on democracy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday, despite Bush's inaugural promise to make promoting freedom the major theme of U.S. foreign policy.

Rice, preparing for a Feb. 24 summit between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, was critical of recent trends in Russia, saying "it is no secret we have had concerns."

But she said the United States would engage Russia and try to change its course by persuasion, rather than pressure, such as linking Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organization to more political openness.

"I don't really think the isolation of Russia from the broader trends that are developing worldwide is the answer," Rice said. Slowing Russia's entry into the trade group "would be exactly the wrong thing to do," she said.

Rice's remarks aboard her plane flight to the Turkish capital confirm Bush plans to continue to invest in Putin, with whom he has developed a close personal relationship.

But they appeared to raise questions about whether there are more than words behind Bush's inaugural address about freedom and last week's State of the Union speech.

More broadly, the U.S. approach could invite criticism, already prevalent in some countries, that Washington pursues two standards on democracy and human rights—one for adversaries and pariah states, another for friendly powers such as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.

Throughout her weeklong trip to Europe and the Middle East, Rice has harshly criticized Iran, even suggesting the United States would like to see its unelected leaders removed.

Human rights abuses in Russia are not nearly as bad as in Iran, and Russia backs the U.S. "war" on terrorism, whereas Iran sponsors numerous terrorist groups, the State Department charges.

But in the last year, Putin has centralized political power in Russia, marginalizing opponents and squelching independent media. He intervened overtly in neighboring Ukraine's presidential election late last year.

"It is important that Russia make clear to the world that it is intent on strengthening the rule of law, strengthening the role of an independent judiciary, permitting a free and independent press to flourish. These are all the basics of democracy," Rice said in Warsaw, Poland, before flying to Turkey.

"And it is no secret we have had concerns about some of the developments in Russia," she said.

In Ankara, Rice met with her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to prepare for the Bush-Putin meeting in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.

On the agenda are Iraq; Russia's support for Iran's civilian nuclear power program, which Washington fears is a cover for nuclear arms development; and six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons.

Rice stopped in Poland to thank it for backing the U.S. war in Iraq, which caused a rift between Central Europe and established European powers such as France and Germany that were opposed to the war.

"We have come to the common conclusion that the unfortunate concept of `old' and `new' Europe is a total misunderstanding," Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld said. He referred to a derisive comment by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about the French-German position.

Rice also brought rewards for Poland.

She promised to address complaints about U.S. visas for Polish citizens and to help modernize the Polish military, which has been sapped by the deployment of 2,400 soldiers to Iraq. Poland is recalling 800 of those troops this spring.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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