Rice prods Russia on press freedoms

Sunday, October 22, 2006

MOSCOW -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday delivered a symbolic rebuke to Russia over shrinking press freedoms even as she courted President Vladimir Putin for help punishing Iran over its nuclear program.

Rice made a point of scheduling an interview with Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper where a reporter critical of Russian policy in neighboring Chechnya had worked before her murder this month. Rice also met with the reporter's son.

Rice's one-day trip to Moscow followed talks in Asia last week over North Korea's nuclear test on Oct. 9. Russia voted for U.N. penalties against North Korea after the test, and the United States is seeking Russian cooperation for an upcoming vote on sanctions against Iran.

Yet even before Rice arrived in the Russian capital, her Russian counterpart said Moscow will not allow the Security Council to be used for punitive measures against Iran. Russia, however, was ready to discuss ways to pressure Iran into accepting broader international oversight of its nuclear program, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

"Any measures of influence should encourage creating conditions for talks," Lavrov said in an interview with the Kuwaiti News Agency KUNA that was posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry Web site Saturday.

"We won't be able to support and will oppose any attempts to use the Security Council to punish Iran or use Iran's program in order to promote the ideas of regime change there," according to the interview Friday.

A draft resolution is expected to be introduced in the Security Council early this week, and diplomats have said they would seek limited penalties for Tehran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.

Rice's decision to meet with Novaya Gazeta editors and reporters was a reminder to Putin of the widening rift between Russia and the United States over what the Bush administration sees as a rollback of democratic gains under the Russian president.

She met privately with Putin later Saturday.

Previewing her message to the newspaper editors, Rice told reporters traveling with her that she wanted to speak to one of a shrinking number of "independent voices" in Russian media.

"The fate of journalists in Russia is a major concern," Rice said. "Anna Politkovskaya was a particularly well-known and well-respected journalist so I think it's important to note that."

Politkovskaya repeatedly had accused Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov's security forces of abducting, torturing and killing innocent people. Her newspaper posthumously published her last story that described alleged torture by the Kremlin-backed Chechen security services.

Politkovskaya, a sharp critic of Putin and the conduct of the Kremlin and of Russia's war in Chechnya, was found shot dead at her Moscow apartment building.

Since Putin's election more than six years ago, he has presided over what critics have called a steady rollback in press freedoms won since the Soviet Union's collapse. Top independent television stations have been shut down and print media are under growing pressure from officials.

Putin said the killers had done the Russian government no favor. The killing "inflicts much greater damage to the government than any of her writing," he said after the killing.

The media rights group Reporters Without Borders has called Putin one of the world's press freedom "predators."

Rice's last Asian stop was in Beijing, North Korea's traditional ally, where she met with a Chinese government envoy just back from a hastily arranged visit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Rice said the envoy, State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, told her nothing that confirmed news reports about conciliatory moves from the North.

"Councilor Tang did not tell me that Kim Jong Il either apologized for the test or said that he would never test again," Rice said, adding that she does not know the source of widely circulated South Korean media reports to the contrary.

"I don't know whether or not Kim Jong Il said any such thing. But the Chinese ... in a fairly thorough briefing to me about the talks, said nothing," that confirms it, Rice said.

Lavrov, in the Kuwaiti interview, urged the U.S. and North Korea to settle issues such as U.S.-imposed financial restrictions in order to clear the way for international talks to resume on the North's nuclear program.

"Both sides should show flexibility," he said.

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