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RICE'S VISIT TO RUSSIA FOCUSES ON DEMOCRACY

Making her first visit to Russia as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice met with Russian leaders Wednesday to stress U.S. hopes that the Kremlin will hew closer to democratic ideals such as the rule of law and an independent news media.

Rice's visit to Moscow comes as concerns within the Bush administration run high over recent signs that the Kremlin is bent on concentrating power, including President Vladimir V. Putin's decision last year to abolish the election of governors and instead have them appointed by the Kremlin.

Many observers think that Russia's biggest test yet of its commitment to the rule of law will come next week, when a Moscow court announces its verdict in the case of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man and an oil magnate, who has been charged with tax evasion and fraud. The case has been widely viewed as engineered by the Kremlin because of Khodorkovsky's political alignment with opponents of Putin. There was no indication that the Khodorkovsky case came up in discussions Rice had with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov.

"I had an opportunity to affirm for (Lavrov) the interest that the U.S. has in a strong and confident Russia that is . . . developing in terms of its own democratic development and in the development of the rule of law in the political and economic spheres," Rice said in a briefing she held alongside Lavrov after their talk.

Rice's meetings focused on a variety of issues, including preparations for President Bush's summit with Putin in Moscow in early May during Russia's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Appearing on Russia's Ekho Moskvy Radio, Rice tried to soften her remarks about the Kremlin's track record on democracy, saying she realized that the democratization of Russia was a work in progress that needs time.

"We understand that Russia is finding its own way, and we respect that," Rice said. "All that we are saying is, for the U.S.-Russian relationship to really deepen and for Russia to gain its full potential, there needs to be democratic development."

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