But at the historic meeting on June 21 between members of the foreign policy committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and Russian State Duma, seats were full 30 minutes before the proceedings began.
This first-ever public meeting of the two committees was led by Representative Tom Lantos, a Hungarian immigrant who fled the Nazis and is known for his leadership on Russian-U.S. relations in Congress. Lantos is the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Opening the meeting, Lantos said he hoped the discussion would set a tone of "friendship and openness" ahead of a July 1-2 summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush -- and at a time when ties between the two countries are increasingly distant.
Following his warm opening comments, however, Lantos went on to offer a sharp criticism of the media environment in Russia, which he said has seriously declined under Putin's government.
"The Kremlin, for all practical purposes, controls practically all of television, and most Russians obtain their news and news analyses via television, and this has become a tremendously significant retrograde move in recent years," Lantos said.
"We are deeply disturbed by the assassination of courageous journalists. The great journalist [Anna] Politkovskaya was only one example of a courageous Russian woman journalist, in this instance, who was shot dead in her own apartment house."
Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, was representing the Russian delegation. He said Russia is open to what he called "justified criticism" -- but not criticism "based on unilateral, one-sided sources."
He said Anna Politkovskaya's murder was a "terrible tragedy" for all of Russia and that parliament has insisted on an "exhaustive investigation" and punishment of those involved.
He went on to defend Russian media freedom, saying that, for example, Politkovskaya's articles -- which tended to be highly critical of Putin and the Russian government -- were published in a newspaper that people "could openly buy at any newspaper stand in Russia." Dissenting views are routinely heard on radio, seen on television, and read in publications, he added.
Another lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, echoed his remark, saying, "There is at least as much plurality of opinion in the Russian media today as in the United States."
That atmosphere of competition was evident in other remarks as well -- such as when Kosachyov stated in comments subsequently broadcast on Russian TV that Putin was openly elected and that public satisfaction with the current Russian leadership remains high.
"The pace of economic growth over the past six or seven years in Russia has steadily been twice as high as that of the United States," he said. "The real incomes of the people over those six to seven years have doubled [in Russia]. Support for President Putin reaches 70 percent, and on some issues 80 percent."
Four of the six Duma deputies attending the meeting were from pro-Kremlin Unified Russia. Kosachyov introduced the remaining two -- Slutsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Natalia Narochnitskaya of A Just Russia -- as members of the political opposition. This drew a pointed comment from Lantos.
"You are referring to several of your colleagues as members of the opposition, but substantial real opposition in the Duma no longer exists. And the very small opposition which is still present in Russia is prevented, in many instances, from peaceful demonstrations," he said, remarking on Garry Kasparov's detention ahead of a peaceful May 18 opposition rally in Samara.
Other controversial topics were discussed at the session as well.
When talk turned to the subject of U.S. plans to establish a missile-defense base in Poland and the Czech Republic, Representative Joe Wilson tried to assure the Russian lawmakers that the United States wants to cooperate with Russia.
"The threat coming from rogue regimes, like Iran and North Korea, are real and must be taken seriously," Wilson said. "I agree with Chairman Lantos -- it has never been America's intent to consider Russia a threat. We believe Russia will be a friend, and we want to work together to face the joint challenge of Iran and North Korea."
Kosachyov replied the Kremlin's suspicions about the U.S. base were supported by Russian weapons experts, who insist Iran is years away from having the technology that would allow it to send a missile to Europe.
He disputed the characterization that Russia was "running away" from the idea of missile defense, and said the counterproposal to locate the radar system in Qabala, Azerbaijan was meant to be "a first step for much deeper cooperation" on the issue.
Despite such debates, an atmosphere of polite diplomacy prevailed through much of the meeting.
One clear area of agreement during the meeting was on Iran, which both sides agreed should not be allowed to gain nuclear weapons. Iran says its uranium enrichment program is for the peaceful production of nuclear energy, but Western countries suspect it of trying to develop nuclear weapons material.
To that end, Lantos invited the Russians to help organize a joint mission to Tehran, which he noted was last visited by a member of Congress in 1978.
Toward the end of the session, the tone grew distinctly frostier as the issue of frozen conflicts took center stage.
Representative Eliot Engel acknowledged Moscow's concern that if Serbia's predominantly ethnic-Albanian province of Kosovo becomes independent, it will set a precedent for breakaway republics of Transdniester in Moldova, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
But Kosovo, Engel said, is nothing like those republics. Independence for Kosovo, he added, is the only way to end what he called "the last unresolved problem" in the former Yugoslavia.
Engels said the proposal submitted by Marti Ahtisaari, the UN special envoy to Kosovo, which strongly recommends independence for the province, is the right way to proceed.
"We in the United States believe that independence for Kosovo is inevitable, and we either do it according to the Ahtisaari plan, which is an orderly way. Or we do it in a less orderly way, whereby Kosovo would declare independence, and the United States and other countries would recognize it," Engels said. "I would hope that we could do it in an orderly way, and I would hope that the threat of the Russian veto to the Ahtisaari plan would not come about."
If Russia does use its veto power at the UN Security Council, he added, the United States will still recognize Kosovo independence.
Speaking for the Russian delegation, lawmaker Natalia Narochnitskaya made a stark warning about the threat inherent in granting independence to Kosovo.
"I will be frank," she said. "What you would be creating [by giving Kosovo independence] is a militant Islamic state with pronounced geographic expansionism in the center of Europe."
Kosovo As Precedent
Another deputy, Aleksandr Kozlovsky, reiterated that the Russians could not agree with the U.S. position. He listed the former Soviet countries with breakaway republics and drew parallels to Serbia.
"If Kosovo gains independence, not a single Abkhaz or a South Ossetian would understand why they cannot become independent," Kozlovsky said.
Russia, Kozlovsky said, is not against resolving the Kosovo problem. It just wants to slow down the current process and avoid "a quick and dirty agreement to the status" question. Otherwise, he warned, new problems will begin the day after independence is granted, when an "Albanian state" is created and the Serbian population begins to flee.
At this point, Lantos interrupted Kozlovsky, saying equating the Kosovo situation with other frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union was "simply historically inaccurate."
Lantos said the United States would not accept the characterization of Kosovo as "just one of the little ethnic disputes." The issue of final status will either be resolved at the UN, or when the Kosovars declare their own independence unilaterally, he said.
"I can assure you the following day [after independence is declared] the United States will recognize Kosovo as an independent country, as will the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, and all the others," he said. "So Russia can either be with Europe and the United States on the basis of a United Nations resolution of a brutal ethnic cleansing at long last being rectified, or it can stand on its own."
Throughout the remarks by Lantos, the Russian delegation sat stone-faced but showed little reaction. A few minutes later, the meeting was adjourned, and the lawmakers headed to a lunch break. That was followed by an afternoon session -- this time behind closed doors.
James Collins, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001, and is now the director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says face-to-face meetings like the June 21 gathering are a good way to clear up misunderstandings.
"I believe they're extremely useful," he said. "I think when we don't have direct discussions between members of the legislative branch and their counterparts, we simply get a lot of misunderstandings. And this is a very good way to get clarifications."
A memorial for Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow shortly after her murder (epa)
'A SMALL CORNER OF HELL': RFE/RL's Russian Service invited a number of prominent Russians to read passages from Anna Politkovskaya's second book on the war in the North Caucausus, "A Small Corner Of Hell: Dispatches From Chechnya" (see transcripts in Russian).The excerpts below are in Russian and are each about five minutes long.