MOSCOW — The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has amassed so much central authority that the power-grab may undermine Moscow's commitment to democracy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday.
"In any country, if you don't have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development," Rice told reporters after meeting with human-rights activists.
"I think there is too much concentration of power in the Kremlin. I have told the Russians that. Everybody has doubts about the full independence of the judiciary. There are clearly questions about the independence of the electronic media, and there are, I think, questions about the strength of the Duma," said Rice, referring to the Russian parliament.
Telephone messages left with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov were not immediately returned Saturday evening.
The top American diplomat encouraged the activists to build institutions of democracy. These would help combat arbitrary state power amid increasing pressure from the Kremlin, she said.
The United States is concerned about the centralization of power and democratic backsliding ahead of Russia's legislative and presidential elections in December and March. Putin will step down next year as president. He has said he would lead the ticket of the main pro-Kremlin party in the parliamentary elections and could take the prime minister's job later.
Rice sought opinions and assessments of the situation from eight prominent rights leaders.
"I talked to people about the coming months and how they see the coming months. How these two elections are carried out will have an effect on whether Russia is making the next step on toward democracy," Rice said after the private sessions at Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow.
Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday received a chilly reception from Putin and senior Russian officials on U.S. proposals for cooperating on a missile defense system in Eastern Europe that Russia vehemently opposes.
But as she has in the past, Rice declined comment on Putin's possible political future and said she did not raise the matter in her official discussions.
Although she would not speculate about Putin's ambitions, Rice said there were signs that whatever transition occurs could be smooth.
"To the degree that anyone can predict, it looks like it will be fairly stable," she said. "But, I would just caution that change is change."
Earlier, Rice said she hoped the efforts of rights activists would promote universal values of "the rights of individuals to liberty and freedom, the right to worship as you please, and the right to assembly, the right to not have to deal with the arbitrary power of the state."
In the meeting with business, media and civil society leaders, Rice said she was "especially interested in talking about how you view (the) political evolution of Russia, the economic evolution of Russia."
"Russia is a country that's in transition and that transition is not easy and there are a lot of complications and a lot of challenges," Rice said. "If Russia is to emerge as a democratic country that can fully protect the rights of its people, it is going to emerge over years, and you have to be a part of helping the emergence of that Russia."
Participants in the meetings said they outlined their concerns but that she did not offer any judgments about the state of human rights and democracy under Putin.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group told the Interfax news agency her organization sees "the purposeful construction of an authoritarian society and an onslaught on the people's rights, elections are being turned into farce, and human rights and opposition organizations are experiencing pressure."
Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, said the discussions touched on "authoritarianism and the crisis of human rights." He said he disagreed with "the opinion that we had a flourishing democracy in the 1990s and that we have a setback now."
"Not all is ideal in America, either. We see protests against the war in Iraq and violations of human rights on the part of security services and violations of human rights in countering terrorism," Brod said.
Vladimir Lukin, the government-appointed human rights ombudsman, was quoted by Interfax as saying he told Rice that human rights should be discussed in a dialogue rather lecturing in a "doomsday" style.
The State Department frequently has criticized what Washington regards as creeping authoritarianism among Putin and other top Russian leaders.
Its most recent human-rights report on Russia notes continuing centralization of power in the Kremlin, a compliant legislature, political pressure on the judiciary, intolerance of ethnic minorities, corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, and media restrictions and self-censorship.
Rice and Gates later met with Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov for talks on trade and economic relations, including negotiations for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization.
Moscow and Washington signed a trade agreement last November that removed the last major obstacle in Moscow's 13-year journey to join the 149-member group. Moscow must still conclude other outstanding bilateral deals and assuage the European Union's concerns about energy supplies.
The Russian government press service said Zubkov also pressed the Americans to work to abolish the Jackson-Vanik amendment. The 1974 measure ties Russia's trade status to whether it freely allows Jewish emigration.