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Rice reassures on ex-Soviet republics

Putin is told US won't undermine

MOSCOW -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told President Vladimir Putin of Russia yesterday that the United States does not seek to rob Russia of its traditional influence in former Soviet republics.

Concerns about American intentions have grown in Russia following the establishment of pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine and the expansion of the US military presence in Central Asia, as part of the Bush administration's fight against terrorism.

The United States has military facilities in the Central Asian nations of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Some Russians fear American encirclement of their country.

Georgia had an antiauthoritarian upheaval in 2003, Ukraine last year, and Kyrgyzstan last month. Rice suggested that Belarus should be next on the list. That country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, has ruled for a decade and has long been criticized by US officials for quashing dissent.

Belarus ''is really the last dictatorship in the center of Europe, and it's time for a change in Belarus," she said.

Speaking to reporters, Rice said she told Putin that US actions in former Soviet states ''are not in any way anti-Russian or designed to diminish Russian influence." She added that Washington seeks ''the normal development of US relations with fully independent states."

Russian wariness about US intentions was evident earlier yesterday. A radio station, Ekho Moskvy, after interviewing Rice, invited listeners to vote on whether the United States is an ally or adversary of Russia.

The tally of more than 6,000 votes was 54 percent to 46, with the majority seeing the United States as an ally.

As for the relatively high anti-American vote, Rice said, ''It's a matter of overcoming a lot of long-held attitudes" shaped during the communist era.

After her meeting with Putin, Rice flew to Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, for a NATO foreign ministers meeting that began with an informal dinner. Additional meetings were set for today.

One of the items under discussion was the status of the possible entry by Ukraine into NATO.

Russia has been the dominant influence in Ukraine for centuries, but the elected government that took office in January seeks membership in the American-led alliance.

Next month, President Bush plans to visit Georgia, Russia, and another former Soviet republic, Latvia.

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