U.S.-Russia Relationship Remains Frosty

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continued her visit to Moscow today, and the day's agenda combined her interests in Russian politics and figure skating. She was given a warm reception on the ice at the Russian Army's Central Sports Club, but after her latest round of talks with Kremlin officials, the U.S.-Russia relationship remains frosty.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From the track now to the rink. Before Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state, she was a Russia analyst. And before that, a serious figure skater. So that's why she was on familiar turf today at the ice rink of the Russian Army's Central Sports Club in Moscow. The venue seemed an apt conclusion to a visit that has highlighted how chilly U.S.-Russia relationships have become.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has our report from the Russian capital.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary Rice has a history as a Cold War Kremlin watcher, and today met with some of the officials rumored to be potential presidential candidates. Though she was careful not to tell reporters much about what she thought of them, she did voice her concerns about where Russia is heading.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): There's too much concentration of power in the Kremlin. And I've told the Russians that. I've said it publicly before.

KELEMEN: That was not the focus of our conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin on this trip. But it was the focus of a meeting she had with democracy and human rights activists like Tanya Lokshina of the center Demos, who spoke to NPR as she was leaving the U.S. ambassador's residence.

Ms. TANYA LOKSHINA (Chair, DEMOS Center for Information and Research): They spoke of all the disaster situation of - with the freedom of media and the generally weak democratic institutions in this country, the judicial systems that doesn't work. Citizens of Russia are not being able to find legal remedies. And lots of problems that are so crucial to us…

KELEMEN: Another participant at this roundtable, Vladimir Lukin, who is the Russian government's human rights ombudsman added to the list of concerns.

Mr. VLADIMIR LUKIN (Human Rights Ombudsman, Russia): Prioritize the problem of an extinguished Soviet syndrome in approach into the problems of human rights. And I spoke about the brand new programs like terrorism and human rights, like new technology and eavesdropping and all these. I finally said that what is needed is dialogue.

KELEMEN: Dialogue but not lectures. But Lokshina wants to see Rice bring up these issues not just with human rights activists but with the real power in the country, though she realizes America's influence these days is quite limited.

Ms. LOKSHINA: Let's say (unintelligible) that next time Secretary Rice comes to town, she will come to town to speak about human rights and democracy through the Russian leadership.

KELEMEN: The secretary has been careful to avoid any talk about Putin's future despite the fact that Moscow is consumed with speculation that he will find some way to hang on to power after his term expires next year. He's even suggested becoming prime minister. Rice wouldn't comment. As today, what she thinks of him, she offered only this.

Sec. RICE: I certainly always read him as somebody who was going to do what he thought was in the best interest of his nation and was going to be, in a sense, transparent about that. Where there have been differences, it's because I think we read those interests differently.

KELEMEN: It was clear on this trip that the two sides are reading things differently when it comes to democracy, missile defense, other arms control issues and Iran. But while relations are frosty night, Rice did get a warm welcome from some young Russians today of all places - on the ice.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELEMEN: Rice was competitive figure skater as a teenager but wouldn't show off her skills today. She said skating might not be like writing a bicycle, a skill you never forget. And she didn't want to take that chance in front of reporters and the figure skaters twirling around her. Instead, the Russians rolled out a carpet so she could step on and pose for pictures.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Moscow.

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