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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rice Says Kremlin Too Powerful

The government under Vladimir Putin has amassed so much central authority that new attempts to centralize power may undermine Moscow's commitment to democracy, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

"In any country, if you don't have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development," Rice told reporters Saturday 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."

Telephone messages left with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov were not immediately returned on the weekend.

The top U.S. 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.

But as has been the case in the past, Rice declined to 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 would 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 Rice did not offer any judgments about the state of human rights and democracy under Putin.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group said her organization saw "the purposeful construction of an authoritarian society and an onslaught on the people's rights, elections turning into farce and human rights and opposition organizations are experiencing pressure," Interfax reported.

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 the United States, 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.

"It was very good that she took the time for us," said Tatyana Lokshina, the head of the Demos human rights center. She said Rice offered hope that nongovernmental organizations could "connect into politics."

Lokshina added that she told Rice that Washington had lost influence when it came to human rights issues because of the invasion of Iraq and the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

She said Rice replied that the United States was an outspoken actor on human rights and had "never lost the high ground."

Other topics included the situation in the troubled North Caucasus and the detrimental effects of the country's new law on nongovernmental organizations.

Apart from Rice, U.S. Ambassador William Burns was present. Lokshina said that six Russian NGOs took part, as well as State Duma Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and a representative of the presidential human rights commissioner's office.

Lukin said he told Rice that human rights should be discussed in a dialogue rather than one side lecturing in a "doomsday" style, Interfax reported.