MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russian rights advocates have met visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ask for Washington's help in protecting the lives of campaigners and bringing the killers of activists to justice.
Two days after Russia's ruling party won a big victory in regional elections that the opposition said were rigged, Clinton met human rights activists, journalists and officials dealing with rights issues -- but not opposition politicians.
In remarks prepared for delivery at the private meeting, Clinton said Washington would always uphold democratic standards and praised the bravery of Russia's rights activists.
"Those of you here today understand the risks. You have seen friends and colleagues harassed, intimidated and even killed. And yet you go on working and writing, refusing to be silenced," Clinton said, according to comments issued by U.S. officials.
Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, who took part in the hour-long meeting with Clinton at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Moscow, said Washington must keep pressing Russia to improve its rights record.
"It should always be made possible that human rights issues of a pressing nature are raised," Lokshina said, adding that she had told Clinton about the murder of activists and the failure of legal probes into their deaths.
Clinton made no mention of Russian rights issues or Sunday's disputed regional elections during a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but did tell the activists that she would raise their concerns with the Kremlin.
"In our discussions with the Russian government, we will continue to express our support for efforts to improve governance and advance human rights. We will continue to stress the importance of holding those who commit crimes accountable."
The robust language contrasted with her earlier emphasis on cooperation and partnership at the news conference.
There she added a reference to President Barack Obama's promise to "reset" stormy U.S.-Russia relations, saying: "I feel very good about the so-called 'reset.'"
A leading Russian daily seized on comments by Obama's top adviser on Russia, Michael McFaul, after a Kremlin meeting on October 12, arguing they meant Washington had decided to tone down public criticism of Moscow's record on democracy and human rights to pursue a more constructive relationship.
"It is not his [Obama's] style to lecture people and to wag his finger," McFaul said. "He has a different approach to it."
The "Kommersant" daily said, "Mr. McFaul gave to understand that the U.S. no longer intends to teach Russia about democracy, something which irritates Moscow, but instead to concentrate on practical work with NGOs."
U.S. officials said "Kommersant" had misinterpreted McFaul's remarks and that Washington would still bring up democracy and rights issues with Russian officials on a regular basis.
Nonetheless, the "Kommersant" report caused dismay among Kremlin opponents, still smarting from the October 11 regional elections in which the ruling United Russia party trounced opponents amid accusations of foul play.
Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy, a station sometimes critical of the government, ran a morning phone-in asking its listeners whether Washington was "right to drop criticism of Russian democracy and human rights." Some 72.5 percent of callers said it was wrong.
Human rights groups have been sharply critical of Russia in recent years.
They charge that an increasing concentration of power in the hands of the Kremlin has eroded democracy, marginalized opponents, and led to a growing number of serious abuses.
One participant at the meeting with Clinton, who raised the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, said it would have been pointless to invite opposition politicians because they had no clout.
"I don't think it would have been a good idea because the political opposition in Russia is really marginal, not because they're stupid people and not because they have no audience, but because in a society which is not democratic, there is basically no opposition," said opposition journalist Yulia Latynina.