In a speech wrapping up his two-day visit to Moscow, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has reiterated Washington's support for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WT) because it will lead to greater trade between the two countries.
But Biden also urged Russia to improve its business climate, saying fears of abuse of property rights and other legal abuses are a "fundamental obstacle" for many potential investors.
Speaking at Moscow State University, Biden said that "it's better for America and I believe better for Russia to be able to trade with each other under predictable and transparent rules."
The vice president added that the Kremlin's drive to modernize the economy will not succeed without "political modernization."
Mostly Trade Issues
Biden's two-day visit to Russia was largely devoted to bolstering economic ties between the two nations and building on the "reset" in relations launched two years ago.
In addition to assuring Russian President Dmitry Medvedev of Washington's support for Moscow's long-standing WTO bid on March 9, Biden also met business leaders at a hi-tech research hub that authorities are building outside Moscow.
The same day, he presided over the signing of a deal for Russia's flagship airline Aeroflot to buy jets from U.S. plane manufacturer Boeing.
Trade issues topped the agenda again during his talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on March 10.
Biden said the previous U.S. administration had done little to deepen economic ties with Russia, which he described as a "great country" with a vast intellectual capital. The time has come, he told Putin, to rectify this shortcoming.
Russian-U.S. trade amounted to $23.5 billion last year, just 3.8 percent of Russia's total external trade.
Putin took advantage of the new thaw in relations to propose scrapping visas between the two countries, a step he said would shatter Cold-War stereotypes.
"If Russia and the United States agreed on visa-free travel before Russia and the European Union do so, that would be a historic step in the development of Russian-American relations," Putin said. "It would break down all the old stereotypes between Russia and the United States. We would turn a very significant page from our past, and we would begin things anew."
The unplanned announcement came as a surprise to Biden, who parried by telling Putin that "there's a real difference between president and vice president" in the United States -- and it is President Barack Obama who sets policy.
"But the very good news is that the president and I agree 100 percent on the need to continue to establish closer and closer relationships with Russia," Biden said.
"Now is the time to focus on the economy," he added.
Despite his visit's focus on trade issues, Biden took time to meet some of Russia's leading human rights campaigners ahead of his talks with Putin.
Svetlana Gannushkina, who co-heads the country's largest rights group, Memorial, said Biden had reiterated Washington's support for a strong civil society in Russia.
"He said how important it was for any government to work with civil society and how civil society should have some control over authorities," Gannushkina said.
Biden told Russia's beleaguered activists that their country's accession to the WTO was conditional on its efforts to protect human rights.
He said the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections would also be a test case of the Kremlin's commitment to democracy, adding that the U.S. Congress was unlikely to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a set of U.S. Cold-War restrictions on trade with Russia, if the elections are judged fraudulent.
Russian rights campaigners, in turn, voiced concerns that many of the measures adopted by the Russian and U.S. governments in the name of the war against terror have violated human rights, including abductions, torture, and secret prisons. They also criticized U.S. President Barack Obama for failing to honor his pledge to swiftly shut down the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison.
Veteran rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva, who attended the meeting, said rights activists understood that the West's dependence on Russian oil and gas prevented foreign officials like Biden from firmly denouncing human rights abuses in their country.
But Biden's visit was nonetheless welcomed as a signal that human rights in Russia have not slipped off Washington's agenda.
"A single visit cannot bring radical changes, but every little drop counts," Gannushkina said.
The U.S. vice president also held lengthy talks with opposition leaders, a meeting that could dispel speculation that his visit signals U.S. backing of Medvedev as Russia's next president.
Putin, a former KGB officer whose relationship with the White House has been cooler than Medvedev's, is the stronger partner in the ruling "tandem" and has hinted he may run again for president in March 2012.
Biden's talks with the opposition touched on media censorship, official corruption, and the difficulties encountered by opposition parties in registering for elections.
Opposition leaders urged the United States to introduce sanctions against Russians officials accused of severe human rights abuses and handed Biden a list of individuals viewed by the opposition as political prisoners.
In his speech at Moscow State University, Biden raised the issue of alleged abuses in the cases of jailed former oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in jail. Both cases are important to Russia's human rights community.
Biden was expected to depart Moscow on March 11 for Moldova.
written by Claire Bigg, with reporting from RFE/RL's Russian Service and agency reports