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Rice criticizes Russia over effort to limit role of activist groups

KIEV, Ukraine—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chided Russia on Wednesday over a Kremlin-backed proposal that could significantly limit the role of activist groups and nongovernmental organizations, particularly foreign ones.

Rice, who has sought to avoid a public confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the issue, said the United States had concerns about the legislation.

"We would certainly hope that the importance of nongovernmental organizations to a stable, democratic environment would be understood by the Russian government," Rice said after a meeting here with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Russian analysts widely see the legislation, which is making its way through the Duma, or parliament, as an attempt to limit foreign influence in Russia.

They suspect that Putin is pushing the law to ensure that there's no repeat in Russia of the kind of people-power revolution that has swept reformers into office in Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet states.

The "Orange Revolution" a year ago in Ukraine saw a major role for activists who had been trained by U.S. government-funded democracy foundations.

China's communist government, trying to head off such a revolution, long has required all nongovernmental organizations to find government sponsors and register with the government.

The Russian measure would restrict foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations and make it more difficult for foreign groups to register. All nongovernmental organizations and similar groups would have to re-register with the Russian state.

The head of Russia's foreign intelligence service, Sergei Lebedev, was quoted Wednesday as saying that foreign spies use nongovernmental organizations as a cover. "Humanitarian missions and nongovernmental organizations are very attractive for spies worldwide. Spies need a cover, a mask, a curtain," he was quoted as telling Russia's Interfax news agency.

The proposal has sparked alarm among Russian and American democracy foundations and research centers. Major Washington-based groups such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have operations in the Russian capital.

The Bush administration, which has worked closely with Putin, has relied until now on quiet diplomacy to persuade him to rethink.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns raised the issue last week during a visit to Moscow.

A senior State Department official who's accompanying Rice said the Russians had dropped hints that they might modify the legislation. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

The Bush administration remains unconvinced, particularly in light of a news media crackdown and other undemocratic moves that Putin has made in recent years.

Rice visited Kiev to lobby Yushchenko to speed up political and economic reforms. His government, torn apart by political infighting, largely has failed to deliver better living standards to Ukrainians a year after hundreds of thousands camped in Kiev's Independence Square and forced the overturn of a fraudulent election that had been awarded to Yushchenko's opponent.

Rice also met with Yushchenko's former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, a partner in the Orange Revolution who left after months of political bickering.

The secretary encouraged both leaders to work together despite their differences, her aides said.

At a news conference with Rice, Yushchenko rejected a reporter's suggestion that Ukraine's economy was stagnant, reeling off a series of statistics that he said showed an improvement in the second half of this year. "So I would like you to accept my optimistic remarks, my optimistic attitude to that," he said.

Later, at a town hall event at Shevchenko University, Rice told students: "It is never easy for a democratic movement to transition from the streets of protest to the halls of government."

While the United States can help, she said, "It really is now more up to you. Ukraine has won its democracy the hard way."

The students, clearly thrilled at Rice's presence, politely queried her on topics ranging from what it's like being a woman in President Bush's White House to her own presidential ambitions and the nickname that has been applied to her, "Warrior Princess."

"`Warrior Princess.' It's not how I think of myself," she replied.


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

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