MOSCOW, April 19 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to amass power and control television broadcasts are "very worrying" trends that have undermined Russian democracy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday.
Rice said she saw some bright signs, including nascent efforts to form political parties to vie for the presidency when Putin's term runs out in three years, and said she understood that it was a "very complicated task" to govern Russia. But "there is no doubt that when we talk about the trends, the trends have not been positive," she said.
Rice's comments, made to reporters as she traveled here for consultations with Putin and other officials, reflect U.S. officials' growing unease with Russia's increasingly fragile democracy. President Bush pledged in his inaugural address this year to confront "every ruler and every nation" about internal repression, but Bush and his aides generally have publicly muted those concerns about Russia.
During a summit in February between Bush and Putin, the Russian leader declared that Russia had "made its choice in favor of democracy," and Bush appeared to accept his word. But Rice indicated that she planned to prod Russian officials more directly in two key areas -- the crumbling of independent power bases and the crackdown against independent television news outlets -- that have characterized Putin's tenure.
"The centralization of state power in the presidency at the expense of countervailing institutions like the Duma or an independent judiciary is clearly very worrying," Rice said, referring by name to the lower house of Russia's parliament. "The absence of an independent media on the electronic side is clearly very worrying."
Rice said it was difficult to achieve the right balance of political freedom while "managing this big and broad place that ranges over 10 or 11 time zones." But the former Soviet specialist added that the concentration of power should not begin to "mimic the Soviet state."
In a move likely to annoy the Kremlin, Rice will meet Thursday with Belarusan opposition leaders on the sidelines of a NATO conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. Russian officials in the past year have chafed as democratic revolutions have ousted autocrats backed by Moscow in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has worked closely with Russia. But Rice decried his government as the "last dictatorship in Europe" and argued that Russia should welcome a vibrant democracy there.
Rice also warned Moscow that its role as chair of a meeting of the exclusive Group of Eight industrialized democracies next year will require it to demonstrate a commitment to democracy. Key lawmakers on Capitol Hill have introduced legislation to suspend Russia from participation in the G-8 because, they say, it is no longer a democracy. Rice rejected that idea, saying it was important not to isolate Russia, but added that Russia must address the concerns.
"Moscow should make every effort to convince the world that they understand those responsibilities that attend inclusion in organizations such as the G-8," Rice said. She said the G-8 was intended to be a "a group of democracies" committed to "free-market principles, free trade, the rule of law."
Russia was invited into the G-8 -- formerly an annual economic summit of seven key industrial powers -- during the Clinton administration, mainly as a way to involve Russia in high-level political discussions and to encourage the growth of democracy. Russia is scheduled to host the summit for the first time next year.
Rice said the United States was watching carefully to see whether individual freedoms were being eroded in Russia. "I still do think there is a considerable amount of individual freedom in Russia," she said, adding that U.S. officials have told the Russians that "the ability of individuals to coalesce into political groupings is also a test of democracy."
Freedom House, a U.S.-funded group that promotes liberty around the world, says the Russian government has tried to stifle civic activism while Putin has attacked nongovernmental organizations as not serving the interests of Russian society. "One of the things we talk about is treatment of NGOs that are trying to promote that path," Rice said, referring to democracy.
After Rice arrived in Moscow, a bomb threat at her hotel briefly diverted her motorcade. She went to the U.S. ambassador's residence, while her much of her staff traveled to the U.S. Embassy, as Russian officials searched the hotel. She will meet with Putin Wednesday, in part to discuss Bush's visit to Moscow next month for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, before flying to Vilnius.