Senators urge Tillerson to meet with activists in Russia

© Reuters. US Secretary of State Tillerson speaks during a press conference in Ankara.

By Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should meet with “democratic-minded” activists in Russia, as well as government officials, during his visit to that country later this month, he was urged two senators in a letter published Wednesday.

Tillerson is due to visit Russia for talks that are expected to address the nation’s annexation of Crimea, its deployment of a land cruise missile and its role in Syria’s civil war.

While you’re there, you should also meet with civil society activists, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in the letter. Senators are part of the subcommittee that oversees the State Department budget.

“We strongly believe that democratically minded Russians should know that the United States supports their aspirations and, as our nation’s chief diplomat, you are in a unique position to deliver this message,” the letter read.

Tillerson, who has made four trips abroad during his two months in office, has so far not engaged in the “public diplomacy” in which former Republican and Democratic secretaries of state participated. Such events can include meetings with activists, as well as meetings with young people and interviews with local journalists.

A spokesman for the State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

In Turkey last week, Tillerson met with Norine Brunson, the wife of jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson, a missionary held there since October.

On a visit to China last month, Tillerson made a brief mention of human and religious rights, but had no known meetings with activists or engagements with representatives of civil society.

By contrast, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended her visit to China in 2009 with services at a state-sanctioned church, a conversation with women’s rights activists, and a short web chat with Chinese Internet users.

Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza told a Senate hearing last month that it was important for the world to pay attention to voices in Russia in addition to those of President Vladimir Putin’s government.

“Russia is much bigger and much more diverse than the Putin regime,” Kara-Murza said.

In Moscow, Republican and Democratic secretaries of state met with civic leaders at Spaso House, the stately residence of the US ambassador. In 2007, Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state to Republican President George W. Bush, used this visit to encourage Russian activists to build democratic institutions that protect human rights.

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