Powell Offers New Criticism of Putin Limits on Reforms

By STEVEN R. WEISMAN

New York Times

September 15, 2004

WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell expressed concern on Tuesday over President Vladimir V. Putin's recent action to consolidate his power in Russia, declaring that Mr. Putin was "pulling back" on democratic reforms in the name of fighting terrorism.

In guarded comments that nonetheless amounted to the most explicit criticism of Mr. Putin by the Bush administration in some time and were more critical than the initial White House statement on Monday that his actions were an internal Russian matter, Mr. Powell said he intended to take up the administration's concerns in meetings with Russian leaders, perhaps with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the United Nations next week.

"This is pulling back on some of the democratic reforms as seen by the international community that have occurred in the past," Mr. Powell said in an interview with Reuters. "So yes, we have concerns about it and we want to discuss them with the Russians."

Administration officials said Mr. Powell's comments were restrained because public criticism tends to irritate the current Russian leaders without changing their behavior and because the administration's experts were not convinced that Mr. Putin's steps were as drastic as some critics had said.

Mr. Putin, declaring that he wanted to streamline and reform Russian government, called Monday for an end to popular election of regional governors and for parliamentary voting based on party slates rather than individuals. Taken together, the steps would cement his hold over the political process.

"These steps do appear to run counter to fundamental democratic principles," a senior administration official said. "But we want to get a better sense of how the Russians think they're going to be implemented. Our policy is not to overreact, but to try to find out, from as authoritative sources as we can, what their intentions are."

The low-key statement by Mr. Powell was in keeping with the restraint of past American criticism as Mr. Putin has moved to suppress the media, prosecute business leaders, hand out government assets to political allies and cancel energy contracts with American companies.

In January, Mr. Powell wrote a critique of recent Russian actions in an op-ed piece in Izvestia, but his comments this week were the first time he has leveled criticism of particular actions by Mr. Putin.

Critics of the administration have said Washington has not been sufficiently assertive in urging Russia not to return to its authoritarian ways, an argument often heard from former Clinton administration experts on Russia who were themselves criticized in the 1990's for not being tough enough on Mr. Putin's predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin.

The criticism of the Bush administration was renewed Tuesday by Senator John Kerry, who accused it of "looking the other way" when Mr. Putin seemed to be reversing course on reform.

"I remain deeply concerned about President Putin's ongoing moves to limit democratic freedoms and to further centralize power," Mr. Kerry said in a statement. "President Bush has taken his eye off the ball, ignoring America's interest in seeing democracy advance in Russia.''

In analyzing Mr. Putin's steps, the senior administration official said that replacing a vote for individuals with a vote for party slates in parliamentary elections could turn out to be a system used in other democracies, like Israel.

Each of the steps, the official said, appeared to be aimed at ensuring that separatist tendencies in the regions could not gain strength.

"Remember that the Russians have always linked separatism to terrorism," the official added. "The question is whether this type of action is going to deal with the real problems they have in dealing with terrorism. The answer to that is probably 'No.' "

Another factor tempering the administration's response, however, was said by officials to be a desire in the administration to deepen cooperation with Moscow on battling terrorism by sharing intelligence information and working to improve police and security forces in Russia.