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Powell expressed concern russian slide to authoritarian rule { March 14 2004 }

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Powell expresses concern about conduct of Russian presidential election

1:00 p.m. March 14, 2004

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell, embarking on a trip to South Asia, expressed concern Sunday about a slide to authoritarian rule in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, who easily swept to a second term.

Powell, in television interviews before the polls closed, said he was concerned about how Russia conducted its election. He called on Putin's government "to do a better job" of making democracy work.

Blanket coverage of Putin on state-controlled television – and previous steps that have forced major independent TV channels off the airwaves – meant that his five challengers had little opportunity to appeal to voters.

"We don't hesitate to point out to President Putin that he should use the popularity that he has to broaden the political dialogue and not use his popularity to throttle political dialogue and openness in the society," Powell said on ABC's 'This Week."

"But they're still learning. But I don't see it going back to the days of the Soviet Union. But we are concerned about a level of authoritarianism creeping back in the society."

He noted that because Putin had an "an overwhelming edge" in the election, it was not clear why opposition candidates were kept "from fully participating in the electoral process."

But, he added on "Fox News Sunday," "I don't think it signals the total demise of democracy in Russia."

Putin's campaign chief angrily rejected such criticism of the election.

Dmitry Kozak said in a statement that Russian voters "already have significant experience in democratic elections and don't need suggestions from anyone, even less so from representatives of a country that has clear flaws in its election procedures."

Powell had said earlier that Russians must "understand that to have full democracy of the kind that the international community will recognize, you've got to let candidates have all access to the media that the president has."

The secretary told "Fox News Sunday" that people must not be kept in any way "from participating in the open, full democratic process."

Powell appeared on the Sunday talk shows before he was to leave on a weeklong trip to South Asia and the Middle East. Stops include India, Pakistan and Afghanistan before going to the Middle East. His schedule there has not been announced.

Russia's presidential vote was held a few months after the main pro-Putin party won a sweeping victory in parliamentary elections. Foreign observers said those elections were unfair and a setback for democracy because of the authorities' use of the state-run media and other means of influence.

In a recent report on the campaign, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the state-run media in Russia had shown "clear favoritism" toward Putin.

"We are concerned about the way this election is being held, and the way the election for the Duma, their parliament, was held not too long ago," Powell said. "And we have expressed directly to President Putin – I have, as the president's chief diplomat ... and to other leaders in Russia, that these are areas that they have to work on."

Powell noted that OSCE representatives and other foreign monitors were observing the presidential voting and that an independent assessment would come after the election.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration was worried that the elections did not allow for a full debate among candidates.

"We are concerned that in Russia, the independent media has receded into the background," she said. But she added: "This is a country that only came out of its Soviet past 15 years ago. The road to democracy here is not going to be smooth and easy."

Powell, in other areas of foreign policy, said:

–the railway bombings in Spain should only strengthen European resolve against terrorism. He also said it was too early to say whether al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack last week that killed 200 and wounded 1,500.

–warned Iran that other countries will not "just sit by idly" while Tehran pursues building nuclear weapons.

In India and Pakistan, Powell will encourage leaders of the longtime rivals to push ahead with a promising effort to achieve reconciliation.

In Pakistan, Powell will review with Pakistan's efforts to hunt down remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban believed to be operating in the border area with Afghanistan.

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