Rice in Russia hoping for progress on nuclear inspections before Bush visit

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that Washington was hoping to make progress toward more open inspections of Russian nuclear installations before a May meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush.

Rice arrived in Moscow on Tuesday for discussions in preparation for Bush's visit next month during celebrations of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Before meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, she gave a live interview Wednesday to Ekho Moskvy radio. In response to a question, she said that she and Defense Minster Sergei Ivanov had discussed the issue of widening nuclear inspections over dinner Tuesday night, and that they had agreed on improved U.S. access.

She also told radio listeners that Washington considered that Russia had played a "positive role" in advancing nuclear nonproliferation in Iran, where Moscow has built the Bushehr nuclear reactor. Russia and Iran signed a deal requiring Tehran to return spent nuclear fuel to Russia - a key demand of the United States and others concerned over Iran's nuclear program.

Rice tried to assure listeners that the United States was not interested in restricting Russia's influence over former Soviet republics, and said that the people who had launched revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan had not needed encouragement from the United States.

"The role of the United States has been only to speak out for the fact" that people have the right to democracy, Rice said. She said there was no game in the former Soviet region, in which either the United States or Russia should be seen as the winner or loser.

On the eve of her Moscow meetings, Rice said that despite serious setbacks there was no sign Russia was poised to return to its totalitarian past.

She noted that Russia's opposition is expected to contest the next presidential elections, calling it evidence of democratic development, along with recent protests by retired people over a reduction in benefits.

Rice added that "there is a considerable amount of individual freedom" in Russia nowadays.

"One can't imagine reverting back to Soviet times," Rice said while en route to Moscow.

Still, she pointed to the absence of independent voices in Russia's electronic media as perhaps her "principle concern" over Russia's current course. She also cited Putin's decision to appoint provincial governors as opposed to their election.

Rice said there is no thought of seeking Russia's expulsion from the G-8 group of industrialized nations.

The G-8 has a summit meeting each summer, and Russia is scheduled to host the 2006 meeting.

There have been some calls for Russia's exclusion from the group, but Rice said, "There is no reason we would want to see Russia isolated."

But, she added, in exchange for the privileges of G-8 membership, Russia is expected to abide by democratic principles and the rule of law.

She said the Bush administration is pushing for democratic progress in Russia because it is the only way a "deep, broad" relationship can develop, one that is based on common values.

Only through democracy can Russians "fully realize their potential," said Rice, a Russia expert.

Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Yakovenko, wrote in an article Wednesday in the government newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, that the U.S. and Russian governments were working to widen the areas of accord.

"This is important against the background of mistrust of Russia, persisting among a definite part of the American political elite and of attempts to play under rules of former confrontation, when any success by one side was automatically regarded as a defeat of the other and vice versa," Yakovenko wrote.

Washington has accused Moscow of holding elections that fall short of international standards and of meddling in Ukraine's election last November on behalf of the pro-Moscow candidate. Other sources of American disgruntlement include Russia's proposed sale of 100,000 rifles to Venezuela's pro-Cuban government and perceived Russian inattention to a widespread theft of American intellectual property, including movies and computer software.

For their part, Russian leaders have long opposed U.S. policies in Iraq and worry about supposed U.S. attempts to "encircle" Russia through establishing a military presence in former Soviet republics.

Washington says this concern has no basis.

GEORGE GEDDA, Associated Press Writer

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