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Little Progress Expected At U.S.-Russia Talks

By Chloe Arnold

October 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrive in Moscow on October 12 to discuss plans to deploy parts of a missile-defense shield in Central Europe.

The visit by top members of the U.S. administration comes at a rocky time in relations between Russia and the United States.

Rice and Gates bring a catalogue of contentious issues to the table at what is being called a "two-plus-two" summit. The talks will be attended by their Russian equivalents, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

Among the thorny topics to be discussed are the status of Kosovo, Iran's nuclear program, and the future of the START treaty to limit nuclear weapons, which runs out in 2009.

But the talks are likely to focus on the planned U.S. missile-defense shield, intended to counter threats from what the United States calls "rogue states," such as Iran and North Korea. Under the arrangement, Poland would host missile interceptors, while the Czech Republic would host a radar station.

Russia is fiercely opposed to the proposal, which it believes is intended to counter Russia's nuclear arsenal and would upset the global balance of power, and has offered joint U.S.-Russian use of a radar site it leases in northern Azerbaijan to monitor any possible Iranian missile activity.

Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, says the October 12 meeting is unlikely to see any changes in approach from either side. "I think there is no way America will retreat after it has made public its plans," Lipman said. "And it doesn't look like Russia has any desire to concede, either, on what has been an adamant position -- that Russia is flatly, absolutely against those bases in Central Europe."

But Daniel Fried, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, struck a more positive note in a briefing in Washington last week.

"If the Russians are concerned that somehow 10 unarmed missiles in Poland are a threat, let's discuss it," Fried said. "If they're concerned that the initial missile deployment in Poland could be followed by something else, we can discuss ways to address that concern. I mean, we're certainly open to those kinds of discussions."

At Odds On Iran, Kosovo

Rice and Gates are likely to raise the issues of Iran and Kosovo at their meeting. The United States, backed by European states, is pushing for further sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program. While Iran has argued that the program is purely for domestic purposes, the United States and others are concerned that Tehran could use the program as cover for uranium enrichment meant for the production of nuclear weapons.

Moscow says there is no evidence to doubt Iran's nuclear intentions, and has employed its powerful UN veto to water down previous sanctions.

On the subject of Kosovo, Russia, a strong ally of Serbia, has repeatedly rejected UN plans to grant the separatist Serbian province independence.

And observers say time is running out for the Cold War-era START treaty, signed by the U.S. and Soviet governments to limit their number of nuclear warheads and delivery systems. The treaty runs out in two years' time, but there has been no progress on talks to develop a replacement.

"I don't think this is a good time for progress," political analyst Lipman said. "The relations between the two countries are at an all-time low, and going down, at times more slowly, at times faster. But I don't think we've reached the bottom yet."

On the summit's sidelines, the U.S. officials are expected to meet human-rights advocates to discuss growing concerns about the state of democracy and freedom of speech in Russia. The United States and the European Union have expressed alarm at the lack of media freedom in Russia and the arrests of opposition activists and independent journalists in the run-up to elections later this year.

Tanya Lokshina, the chair of the DEMOS Center human-rights watchdog, says she has a long list of topics she would like to discuss, including the situation in the North Caucasus "and the fact that the problems there are not going away." She continued, "I would like to talk to them about the fact that the United States, together with the European Union, should work generally, and adequately, on a policy for human rights in Russia."

There may also be talk about the course of democracy in Russia and the issue of the hand-over of power after presidential elections next spring. Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted he intends to maintain a prominent leadership role despite the constitutional provision barring him from running for a third term as president. Recently he said he did not rule out becoming prime minister when his term expires -- a suggestion that has raised eyebrows in the West.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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