Powell Criticizes Kremlin Policies; Putin Dismisses Tough Editorial

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Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell took an unexpected public swipe at Russia's domestic and foreign policy just before meeting with President Vladimir Putin yesterday, a sign that the Bush administration is adopting a tougher stance toward Moscow.

Mr. Powell, who met with Mr. Putin and senior Russian officials at the start of a brief Moscow stopover yesterday, wrote in a front-page editorial in the influential daily Izvestia that recent events have called into question the Kremlin's commitment to the rule of law, press freedoms and noninterference in the affairs of Russia's neighbors.

"Certain developments in Russian politics and foreign policy have given us pause," said Mr. Powell, in an English text of the op-ed piece released by the State Department.

"Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Political power is not yet tethered to law. Key aspects of civil society - free media and political party development, for example - have not yet sustained an independent presence," he added.

Even couched in diplomatic generalities, Mr. Powell's remarks were the most pointed to date by a top U.S. official since the Dec. 7 Russian elections that gave a party closely tied to Mr. Putin an overwhelming edge in the lower house of parliament.

The United States and other Western observers said media coverage of the election was slanted heavily toward pro-government candidates, with all of the national television networks now under state control.

The State Department also has expressed concerns about the vigorous prosecution of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an outspoken Putin critic, in the past six months on fraud charges.

Mr. Powell's commentary also contained a veiled warning about recent Russian pressure on its neighbors, including a territorial dispute with Ukraine and clashes over Russian troop deployments in Moldova and Georgia. …