VILNIUS, Lithuania, April 20 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday she "pretty pointedly" told Russian officials that the outcome of the criminal case against former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky would affect prospects for business investment in Russia.
Speaking to reporters as she flew here from Moscow for a meeting of NATO alliance foreign ministers, Rice said the Russian government's handling of the case "shook people's confidence" and that it was important for officials to demonstrate that laws and regulations are fair and applied "consistently over time, applied consistently over various cases."
Rice said she tried to remind Russian officials that their country is in transition toward a government based on the rule of law, "so people are looking for signals, and perhaps reading signals more fully than if this were a fully formed state." She made the comments following a two-day visit to Moscow, where she met with President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials.
Khodorkovsky, who was Russia's wealthiest man when he headed Yukos Oil Co., is awaiting a verdict after a trial on charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. His company, once Russia's largest oil producer, has been largely dismantled in a parallel tax case.
Supporters contend that the trial is retaliation for Khodorkovsky's funding of political groups seeking to challenge Putin; Russian officials say the case is part of a crackdown on financial crime by an independent judiciary. A verdict is set to be announced next Wednesday; prosecutors have sought a 10-year sentence.
Rice briefly made the same point about "consistent rules" in an interview on Ekho Moskvy, one of Russia's last remaining independent radio stations, but otherwise her public comments in Moscow were upbeat. She described U.S.-Russian relations as "very warm," called Russia "a strategic partner" and made little reference to U.S. concerns about Putin's dismantling of democratic institutions.
The balancing act reflected the administration's decision to gently press Putin on democracy and the rule of law without losing Russia's cooperation on nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism and other global issues.
Rice told reporters that Russian officials were receptive to her critique of Russian democracy. But comments by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov left it open to question whether the dialogue would bring changes in Russian behavior. At a news conference with Rice, he sarcastically noted that "like the U.S. is interested in a strong and a democratic Russia that could play its active role internationally, we are also interested that the U.S. should be a strong and democratic partner and country playing an active role internationally."
Rice said she also raised concerns that independent electronic media, particularly television, is under assault in Russia. But Lavrov disputed that characterization, saying "there shouldn't be any general expression of concerns about the absence of free mass media in Russia." After she left Russia, Rice said the U.S. and Russian sides "obviously have some definitional differences about what constitutes independent media." She said the Russians insist they have "considerable variation" in media outlets but "our view is that it is variation within a fairly narrow range and that something needs to be done about that."
Russian officials have chafed at what they consider to be U.S. meddling in the governments of former Soviet republics. Rice said U.S. relations with those countries -- some of which, like Lithuania, have already joined NATO -- did not have to be at the expense of Russia."
Rice plans to meet with Belarusan opposition leaders Thursday in the Lithuanian capital. "It is time for change to come to Belarus," she said at a news conference after arriving in Vilnius.