Iran, Iraq, Human Rights Remain Sensitive Issues in Russia-US Ties

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Relations between Russia and the United States should be based on equality and respect, President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday, in an apparent bid to preempt more U.S. criticism of his government''s authoritarian tendencies ahead of next month''s G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

Speaking at the foreign ministry here, Putin said bilateral ties were very important for strategic stability, and hailed "our joint fight against terrorism and efforts in settlement of regional key issues."

But at the same time, he added, "we have a lot to change in respect of each other."

Russia''s presidency of the Group of Eight industrialized countries and hosting of its July 15-17 summit has focused additional attention on the Kremlin''s human rights record, including restrictions on media freedom and the activities of non-governmental organizations, as well as its controversial energy export tactics.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later this week is due to attend a meeting in Moscow of G8 foreign ministers, in preparation for the St. Petersburg summit, which President Bush is expected to attend.

Rice has in the past raised concerns about civil rights violations, for instance during a trip to Washington this spring by her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Last month, Vice President Cheney weighed in during a visit to the Baltics, where he chided Putin for backsliding on democracy and using energy supplies to bully Russia''s neighbors.

Moscow was also troubled last week when U.S. and European Union leaders jointly urged Russia to uphold "democratic freedoms, respect for human rights, civil society and transparency and a responsible approach to energy security."

Despite the criticism emanating from the U.S. - some lawmakers have even questioned the suitability of Russia''s membership in the G8 - the Bush administration is aware of the need for Russian cooperation in areas like handling Iran.

The next steps in dealing with the Iranian nuclear standoff are likely to feature strongly during the G8 ministers'' talks.

Putin Tuesday reiterated his stance on the crisis.

"We do not want to join any kind of ultimatums, which simply deadlock the situation and jeopardize the authority of the U.N. Security Council," he said.

He also pointed to the Russian proposal for international uranium enrichment centers to be established. These would allow countries of proliferation concern, like Iran, to obtain fuel for civilian nuclear energy reactors without having the ability to divert technology to weapons programs.

Another ongoing sensitivity in Russia-U.S. relations - Iraq - was back in the headlines this week after Islamic terrorists killed four Russian embassy employees in Baghdad.

Russia maintained good political and economic relations with Iraq under Saddam Hussein and strongly opposed the March 2003 war that toppled his regime.

The foreign ministry here on Monday confirmed the deaths of the four diplomats, who were kidnapped four weeks ago, after footage of the murders were posted on an al-Qaeda-affiliated group''s website at the weekend.

Russian officials and politicians are accusing U.S. forces in Iraq of failing to protect the diplomats.

"Security in Iraq should be ensured by both the government of this country ... and the U.S.-led coalition forces there," Lavrov said Tuesday.

Senior lawmaker Lyubov Sliska, deputy speaker of the State Duma, said the "burden of responsibility" for the diplomats'' deaths should be shared by "those who occupied Iraq," while a member of the upper Federation Council, Vasily Likhachev, called for a U.N. investigation into "the American occupation of Iraq, which caused death of many people, including ordinary Iraqi civilians."

Geidar Jamal, head of Russia''s Islamic Council, went even further, accusing the U.S. of having a hand in the diplomats'' murders - "it should be viewed as punishment for Russia''s ties with Iran."

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. condemned the murder of the four Russians and extended condolences to their families and the Russian people.

"The killing of Russian diplomats is a terrorist act, and we will do all we can to bring those responsible to justice," he said. "The United States stands with Russia, our partner in the war on terror."

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