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Putin, Rice agree to tone down rhetoric, turn to real issues

Russia’s president and the US state secretary agreed Tuesday to „tone down rhetoric” in public debate and focus on real issues, the Russian foreign minister said.

„The president supported the US side’s understanding of the necessity to tone down rhetoric in public polemics, and focus on specific issues, of which there are plenty,” Sergei Lavrov said. Vladimir Putin met with Condoleezza Rice at the presidential residence near Moscow. A number of issues, including a proposed US missile shield in Europe, independence for Kosovo, and an alleged clampdown on democracy in Russia, have recently soured bilateral relations.

Lavrov said the Russian leader reiterated Moscow’s stance on US plans to deploy missile defense elements in the Czech Republic and Poland. Putin „confirmed Russia’s position on missile defense,” the minister told journalists. Moscow has condemned the plan, dismissing the official US explanation that it needs a missile defense system to counter possible attacks from Iran and North Korea as ungrounded. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in April that there were no grounds to talk about possible Russia-US cooperation in strategic missile defense.

„We believe this system - strategic missile defense - is, to put it mildly, of a somewhat fanciful nature,” he said. Lavrov also said that Putin and Rice had found no common ground on the issue of Kosovo but agreed to look for a mutually satisfactory solution. „They discussed Kosovo and agreed to look for solutions that could satisfy all parties involved, although such solutions are not visible at the moment,” he said. A draft UN Security Council resolution on Kosovo calling for the independence of Yugoslavia’s breakaway province was submitted by France, the UK, Germany and the United States. Russia is categorically opposed to the plan.

Lavrov also said Putin and Rice did not want Russia and the US to become hostages of election campaigns in the two countries, where presidential polls are scheduled for next year. In an interview with Russian TV channel NTV, Rice said the US does not interfere with elections in Russia, but intends to help non-governmental organizations and the development of civil society. The Russian government has faced criticism from Western leaders for restrictions imposed on rights groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country, and the issue is often cited as an example of Russia’s alleged backsliding on democracy.

In a separate interview with Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio, Rice said the US will take into account Russia’s considerations on the Kosovo settlement. She said Kosovo is not being offered independence, but a possibility to gain an independent existence in the future. Moscow has consistently resisted independence for Serbia’s predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo province, which has been a UN protectorate since NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against the former Yugoslavia ended a war between Serb forces and Albanian separatists in 1999.

After talks with Sergei Lavrov, Condoleezza Rice said she and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates could come to Moscow for „two-on-two” talks during the fall, and added that this could minimize misunderstandings between the two nations. Lavrov said the sides reiterated their commitment to bilateral partnership, and cited this as the key result of talks that have taken place during Rice’s visit to Russia. „Russia and the US will inevitably have to remain partners if we are both to realize our responsibility for the world’s fate,” he said. The foreign minister said the current difficulties in relations between Russia and the West are in many respects artificial.

„I do not want to apply the term ‘catastrophe’ to current relations between Russia and the West. The crisis journalists are talking about is in many respects artificial,” Lavrov told journalists, in answer to a question about a crisis in Russia-EU relations. He also said Moscow’s position toward Washington should not be considered hostile. „I do not think Moscow’s attitude to the US should be described as hostile rhetoric. It would be more correct to assess it as an invitation for more open dialogue on all issues, especially on those where viewpoints differ, and there are enough of these,” he said. (