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U.S. Ambassador to Russia Apologizes After Kyrgyz Bribe Row

U.S. Ambassador in Moscow Michael McFaul apologized for comments during a speech to students in which he accused Russia of bribing Kyrgyzstan to close a U.S. air base used for Afghan operations.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry chastised McFaul, a former Stanford University professor in his first diplomatic posting, for breaching protocol and “unprofessional” behavior by spreading “blatant falsehoods through the media.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have spoken so colorfully and bluntly,” McFaul said in an e-mailed statement. “On that, I agree and will work harder to speak more diplomatically.”

The latest spat over McFaul, who was accused by state television and pro-government lawmakers of stirring up unrest in Russia in January by meeting opposition activists days after taking up his new post, reflects increasingly strained U.S.- Russia ties.

President Vladimir Putin skipped the Group of Eight summit hosted by his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama this month to signal his displeasure at American criticism of Russian elections, a senior lawmaker, Alexei Pushkov, said May 14.

The former Cold War foes are also at odds over Western efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a bid by U.S. lawmakers to sanction Russian officials for human rights abuses and a planned U.S. missile-defense shield in Europe.

Putin, who was re-elected to a third Kremlin term in March, stepped up anti-American rhetoric during the campaign, when he was facing down protests by tens of thousands of people over alleged fraud in December parliamentary elections.

‘Won’t Be Diplomatic’

Kyrgyzstan, the only country in the world that hosts Russian and U.S. military installations, decided in 2009 to evict the U.S. from its Manas air base after receiving a $2 billion aid package from Russia. The Kyrgyz government later that year reversed the decision when the U.S. raised the rent to $60 million a year from $17.4 million to keep the facility, used to supply troops in Afghanistan.

“I won’t be diplomatic, I’ll say openly that your country paid off Kyrgyzstan to kick the Americans out of Manas,” McFaul was quoted as saying in a May 25 lecture at the Moscow Higher School of Economics by the state news service RIA Novosti. He added that the U.S. also “offered a bribe” to Kyrgyzstan, “but 10 times less.”

In March, McFaul apologized for calling Russia a “wild country” after journalists from state-run NTV channel followed him to a meeting with a human-rights activist in Moscow.

‘Doesn’t Mince Words’

The U.S. State Department said the “irony” of the Russian criticism of McFaul, who as Obama’s Russia adviser devised a policy to “reset” ties between the two countries, was that his speech had focused on the benefits of better relations.

“He speaks plainly, he speaks clearly, he doesn’t mince words,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday. “He’s not a professional diplomat, and I think that for the Russian government, the fact that he speaks clearly when things are going well and he speaks clearly when they’re going less well is something that they’re having to get used to.”

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