April 5, 2017 / 12:38 PM / 4 months ago

U.S. senators urge Tillerson to meet with activists in Russia

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani at the State Department in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2017.Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should meet with "democratically-minded" activists in Russia as well as government officials during his visit there later this month, two senators urged him in a letter released on Wednesday.

Tillerson is due to visit Russia for talks expected to touch on the nation's annexation of Crimea, its deployment of a land-based cruise missile and its role in Syria's civil war.

While there, he should also meet with civil society activists, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in the letter. The senators sit on the subcommittee that oversees the State Department budget.

"We feel strongly that democratically-minded Russians should know that the U.S. supports their aspirations, and as our nation's top diplomat, you are in a unique position to communicate this message," the letter said.

Tillerson, who has taken four trips abroad during his two months in office, has so far not engaged in the "public diplomacy" in which previous Republican and Democratic secretaries of state took part. Such events might include meetings with activists as well as town halls with youths and interviews with local journalists.

A State Department spokesman 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.

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

By contrast, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton ended her 2009 visit to China with services at a state-sanctioned church, a conversation with women's rights activists and a brief Web chat with Chinese internet users.

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

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

In Moscow, both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state have met with civic leaders at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador's stately residence. In 2007, Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under Republican President George W. Bush, used such a visit to encourage Russian activists to build democratic institutions that protect human rights.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn

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