U.S., Russian Panels Meet Openly for the First Time

Legislators from the Russian parliament, the Duma, and the U.S. Congress meet Thursday in the first open meeting between foreign affairs committees of the two institutions. It will be the third in the series of meetings between the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on International Affairs of the Duma, but it's the first to be attended by the media and the public. The gathering comes as a dispute over U.S. plans to extend its missile defense system to Eastern Europe have brought U.S.-Russian relations to a new low.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

The sharp decline in U.S.-Russia relations was a hot topic on Capitol Hill today. The White House says it is puzzled by the anti-American rhetoric coming out of Moscow these days. The Russians have a similar complaint about the U.S. Today, in a House hearing room, U.S. and Russian lawmakers held their first public joint meeting. They tried to talk through some of their differences on everything from missile defense to democracy.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It may not have helped that on the eve of this first-of-its-kind joint meeting, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Lantos, compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Popeye, with muscles bulging not from spinach, but from high oil prices. Today he explained the analogy this way.

Representative TOM LANTOS (Democrat, California; Chairman, House Foreign Affairs Committee): There was a sudden infusion of billions of dollars of cash, which made the Russian position far more assertive.

KELEMEN: And it is that nearly assertive Russia that was on display in the House hearing room. The chairman of the Russian Duma's international relations committee, Konstantin Kosachev, reacted angrily to the criticism leveled against his president.

Mr. KONSTANTIN KOSACHEV (Chairman, Russian Duma's International Relations Committee): (Through translator) Especially when they are directed at the head of the Russian government. We do not accept this type of criticism under any circumstances.

KELEMEN: Though he speaks English fluently, Kosachev decided to speak through an interpreter so, as he put it, the great Russian language would be heard in Congress. He said he is puzzled that Americans think the atmosphere in Putin's Russia now is worse than in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. He says Russians see things differently.

Mr. KOSACHEV: (Through translator) They like Putin's Russia much better than Yeltsin's Russia.

KELEMEN: Lantos, a California Democrat, acknowledges the Russian economy is better now and less chaotic, but he said under Putin's rule, Russians are only getting the Kremlin's view when they tune in to television. Some opposition rallies have been banned and several independent journalists have been murdered.

Lantos also complained that Putin recently compared the U.S. to the Third Reich. Kosachev denied that was Putin's intention and countered every other criticism. When the topic turned to missile defense, Kosachev made clear his country isn't buying America's rationale for stationing missiles and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Mr. KOSACHEV: (Through translator) From the technical point of view, this missile defense system base should have been located further south.

KELEMEN: In other words, closer to Iran. On several occasions, Lantos interrupted to say that the Russians have a right to their opinion on these various issues, but need to look at the facts. When it got down to the issue of Kosovo and America's support for the province's independence from Serbia, Russian lawmaker Natalia Narochnitskaya couldn't stay on the sidelines.

Ms. NATALIA NAROCHNITSKAYA (Russian lawmaker): I hope that my status as a lady - I'm not a feminist so I don't contest my God-given nature - will exclude me from Mr. Lantos' interruptions, although, maybe it's a rule in the House of Representatives to interrupt the speaker if the speech isn't liked.

KELEMEN: When she switched to Russian, she offered a broad attack on U.S. policy, accusing Washington of opening up Pandora's box by invading Iraq. And then she dove into a long speech about Kosovo, her views on history and how an independent Kosovo could become a radical Islamist state and set a dangerous precedent for ethnic conflicts elsewhere. This time, Lantos let his colleague from New York, Elliot Engle, respond.

Representative ELLIOT ENGLE (Democrat, New York): She may be a professor of history, but she doesn't have the right to rewrite history.

KELEMEN: The U.S. and Russian lawmakers came no closer on that issue today, but Tom Lantos says he found the session valuable.

Rep. LANTOS: We don't sweep our disagreements under the rug. We bring them out into the open.

KELEMEN: He also proposed a joint trip together to Iran. That is if the Russians can help him get a visa.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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