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Rice plays good cop and bad cop with Russia
Updated: 2005-04-21 16:33

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played both good cop and bad cop with Russia this week, stroking Moscow as a strategic partner while rapping it for backsliding on democratic reforms.

But if Rice's 24-hour visit here made anything clear, it was the complexities of dealing with a Cold War foe become ally in the war on terror and major oil supplier in a fuel-hungry world.

President Vladimir Putin speaks to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow. [AFP]

Russia has been considered a key test of President George W. Bush's commitment to fight for freedom. His top envoy, a Russia expert, came out swinging even before she hit the ground Tuesday.

She described President Vladimir Putin's centralization of power and clampdown on independent broadcast media as "very worrying" and said "the trends have not been positive on the democracy side."

She criticized the judiciary, warned Putin against illegally seeking a third term and cautioned that "people are watching" to see how state moves against the oil giant Yukos and its jailed chairman play out.

But by the day of her meetings with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, Rice was singing a sweeter tune on her first trip to Moscow as chief US diplomat.

"We understand that Russia is finding its own way and we respect that," she told a popular talk radio show. She was only interested in seeing Russia achieve its full potential through the democratic path.

Rice went out of her way to reassure the Russians that US support for pro-democracy movements in erstwhile Soviet-bloc countries was not an American Trojan horse.

"I wanted to send a very strong message that the United States does not see developments in the former Soviet states ... as in any way anti-Russian or meant to diminish Russian influence," she said.

"I think the Russians took it on board and it was a good discussion."

Rice discussed Russia's bid for admission to the World Trade Organization and expressed unequivocal backing for its participation in the Group of Eight industrial powers which it will chair next year.

Perhaps more fundamentally, Rice referred repeatedly to Russia as a "strategic partner," a phrase one US embassy official said was sure to bring a smile to the Kremlin.

"We see Russia as a strategic partner in the war on terror. We see Russia as a strategic partner in stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction," Rice said.

"We see Russia as a strategic partner in solving regional issues like the Balkans and the Middle East."

Energy figured prominently in Rice's talks and she arrived with a message on behalf of the United States and the rest of the world fretting over high oil prices and a continued supply squeeze.

"What Russia can do is to adopt policies in its energy sector in terms of the development of its energy sector that will increase the supply of oil both in the short term ... but most especially in the long term," she told CBS News.

Rice also told reporters that Russia's energy industry needed to become more efficient and to overhaul its rules as a signal to investors.

"They need to be rules that people can understand. They need to be consistent rules, applied consistently over time ... (that) we would hope would not disadvantage foreign investors versus domestic investors."

The Kremlin seemed for the most part little fazed by the criticisms and was eager to focus on prospects for developing cooperation with the United States. Putin hailed his "businesslike rapport" with Rice.

When she flew off to Vilnius for a round of NATO meetings, Rice pronounced her self satisfied with her talks, which she said would prepare the May 9 visit by Bush for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Rice was also looking forward to future performances here and gave a long explanation of the intimidating difficulties of Russian grammar to explain why she spoke mostly English in her local radio interview.

"I was sorry that I wasn't doing the entire interview in Russian. But the next time ..."

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