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 U.S. 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.