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Since 1st March, 1999
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Powell throws reforms punch at Putin

Washington, Sept. 14 (Reuters): US secretary of state Colin Powell said today he was concerned that sweeping political changes to fight terrorism proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin would erode Russia's democratic reforms.

'In effect this is pulling back on some of the democratic reforms,' Powell said. 'We have concerns about it and we want to discuss them with the Russians.' The Kremlin leader said yesterday he wanted a new election law to limit the number of political parties and to have full control on nominating regional leaders to combat terrorism following the bloody Beslan school siege in southern Russia.

Vladimir Putin

Critics immediately accused Putin of exploiting the grisly siege, in which at least 327 hostages died, to amass power. While expressing sympathy for Putin's desire to go after 'terrorists' following the Beslan crisis, the bombing of two Russian aircraft and a Moscow subway bombing last month, Powell said Russia must balance this with democratic freedoms.

'We understand the need to fight against terrorism ... but in an attempt to go after terrorists I think one has to strike a proper balance to make sure that you don't move in a direction that takes you away from the democratic reforms or the democratic process,' he said.

Washington has at times been accused of turning a blind eye to widespread concerns the Kremlin was becoming increasingly autocratic, notably by muting its criticism of the imprisonment and trial of the former chairman of the Yukos oil company.

But Powell delivered an unusually blunt message to the Kremlin in January by expressing concern about Russia's democracy and its commitment to the rule of law in an opinion piece published in the newspaper Izvestia.

'It would be not the best course of action to move in a direction which (would) be seen by the international community as moving toward the rear with respect to democratic reforms,' Powell said today.

Since the Beslan tragedy, in which children made up half the victims, Washington has played down its demand that Russia seek a political settlement in Chechnya.

Putin last week rejected talks with the rebels and taunted Washington by saying: 'Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace'

'I think the Russians believe that ultimately a political solution has to be found... But when you are faced with a terrible tragedy such as they were faced with in Beslan what you have to focus on is making sure you have identified who these murderers are, who these terrorists are and go after them,' Powell said.

'There can be no political solution or political dialogue with terrorists (or) murderers ... at the same time you have to find a balance between fighting terrorism in an aggressive way and also making sure that you don't undercut the institutions of state that are based on the foundation of democracy.'

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