Choosing her words carefully, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed concern Tuesday in Russia about a growing concentration of power in the hands of the Kremlin, but also pointed to indications that democracy had made gains here.
Rice spoke to reporters shortly before arriving for a two-day visit to prepare for next month's summit in Moscow between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
The secretary of State said she would engage Russian leaders on a broad range of subjects, including the delicate issue of the concentration of political power within the country's presidency, which has progressed during Putin's five years in office.
She spoke of "certain centralizing tendencies" in Russia, mentioning specifically Putin's decision to end direct election of the country's more than 80 regional governors.
In September, the Russian president announced that he would nominate the governors, who would then be ratified by local legislatures in a process many critics labeled little more than rubber-stamping his decisions.
She also voiced concern about the dearth of vibrant, independent electronic media that felt free to challenge the government's actions. She has scheduled an interview today with Echo of Moscow, which is seen as one of the few top-quality independent local radio stations.
However, Rice balanced her critical remarks by highlighting signs that democracy in Russia was strengthening. She noted this year's large public protests in Moscow that were triggered by widespread dissatisfaction with government plans to reform the pension system. She also remarked that potential candidates to succeed Putin were beginning to be heard.
Putin, who was reelected to a second four-year term last year, is blocked by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term. Rice said there was no reason to doubt his assurances that he would abide by that limitation. "I think it would be a mistake to think of this as somehow reverting back to Soviet times," she said.
Rice's balanced comments may have been an attempt to pursue Bush's broad foreign policy objective of promoting democratic reform without poisoning the atmosphere for relations before the May summit.
A similar meeting two months ago in Bratislava, Slovakia, ended with an awkward news conference in which the Russian leader was clearly annoyed by his American counterpart's urgings to implement democratic reform.
Bush will be attending celebrations in Moscow marking the end of World War II 60 years ago, a victory viewed by many Russians as one of their nation's greatest achievements. However, his decision to stop in Latvia and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, was seen as a slight by the Russian government.
Tuesday's editions of the daily paper Kommersant predicted that the summit "will be anything but festive, but, on the contrary, rather tense."
It was in this context that Rice's motorcade was diverted shortly after her arrival in the Russian capital Tuesday because of a bomb scare at her hotel.
Instead of proceeding to the Renaissance Hotel in central Moscow, Rice, her staff and journalists traveling with the party were driven to the U.S. Embassy, about three miles from the hotel and just over a mile from the Kremlin. They waited for two hours before the all-clear was given.
Rice spent that time at U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow's residence, a short distance away, where she prepared for a working dinner with Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov.
She is scheduled to meet today with Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov and Putin before departing late in the day for a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.