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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rice Calls the Kremlin's Grip 'Very Worrying'

APU.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice being greeted at Vnukovo Airport upon her arrival Tuesday. Behind her is U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday called the Kremlin's tight grip on power and the media "very worrying" and urged President Vladimir Putin not to cling on to power beyond his current term.

Rice made some of the sharpest U.S. criticism to date of the Kremlin's record on democracy at the start of a visit to Moscow.

Her two-day trip got off to a shaky start when a bomb threat forced her motorcade to divert from her hotel, the Renaissance Hotel. As the Federal Security Service searched the hotel, she went to the residence of U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow. No bomb was found, a U.S. official said.

With meetings scheduled with senior officials, including Putin on Wednesday, Rice told reporters on board her plane as she flew to Moscow, "Trends have not been positive on the democratic side."

"The centralization of state power in the presidency at the expense of countervailing institutions like the [State] Duma or an independent judiciary is clearly very worrying," she said.

Even more pointedly, she also said it "would not be a positive development" if Putin changed the Constitution to run for a third successive term.

Putin has said he will not seek to stay on when his second and, under the Constitution his final, term ends in 2008. Rice said Washington took him at his word on this.

Russia is considered a test case of President George W. Bush's vow to make democracy central to Washington's relations. Rights activists complain Washington has been too tolerant of Russia's backsliding on democracy, for fear of losing Putin's cooperation on Bush's top priority, the war on terrorism.

Rice appeared mindful of the warm personal relations Bush has with Putin.

She tempered her criticism by saying individuals enjoyed considerable freedom in Russia, that pensioners had been able to protest the monetization of their benefits and that opposition figures were preparing the ground to participate in the 2008 presidential election.

"It's a mixed picture," she said, adding that her comments were "meant in a spirit of friendship and discussion, not in a spirit of criticism."

Rice linked democracy to Russia's participation in the Group of Eight industrialized nations, saying the forum should be used to press Moscow to be as open as its other members. "Some of the responsibilities that attend that kind of inclusion mean they have to deal with the problems," she said.

Part of Rice's mission is to prepare for Bush's visit to Moscow in May to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.