"In any country, if you don't have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development. 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." -- U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice, speaking during her recent visit to Moscow.
Translation from diplomaticspeak: Vladimir Putin is a maniacal dictator. He must be stopped.
After psychotically, self-destructively snubbing and provoking Rice, the highest diplomatic representative of the world's most powerful country during her official state visit, once again clearly indicating he wants a new cold war, Putin's reward was that Rice publicly condemned his administration creating a story that spread like wildfire across the world's media and then met with his political opposition and praised them before the world. Nice going, Pooty-poot. The Washington Post reports:
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Russian human rights activists on Saturday she wanted to help them build institutions to protect people from the 'arbitrary power of the state'. The meeting could irk the Kremlin, which is sensitive to Western accusations it is rolling back democratic freedoms and suspects foreign governments of trying to influence the outcome of next year's presidential election.
Rice met Saturday with beleaguered Russian human-rights activists to encourage them to build institutions of democracy to combat arbitrary state power amid increasing pressure from the Kremlin. With concerns rising about the centralization of power and democratic backsliding in Russia ahead of legislative and presidential elections in December and March, Rice sought opinions and assessments of the current situation from eight prominent rights leaders. "I just want to have an opportunity to hear from you," she told the group at Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow. "This is an extremely important time in Russia's development."
Before going in to a closed-door meeting with the leaders, Rice said she hoped their efforts would be successful in promoting 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."
"How is it going?" the former Soviet expert asked. "That's what I want to hear. How is it going and what can we do to help Russia to build strong institutions that have these universal values?"
In a second meeting at the residence 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 afterwards that Rice had not offered any judgments about the state of human rights and democracy in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, who will step down next year but has said he would lead the ticket of the main pro-Kremlin party in the parliamentary elections and could later take the prime minister's job. On her way to Moscow for talks focused mainly on missile defense and other strategic matters, Rice herself had sidestepped questions about whether she would press Putin on his political ambitions and what she thought of them. "I will raise and have raised on many occasions such concerns with my Russian colleagues, indeed sometimes in great detail," she told reporters on Friday. "But frankly, I'm not about to join the speculation about what will happen in terms of Russian domestic politics and who might be president and who might be prime minister."
On Saturday, participants said Rice had held true to that stance.
"She did not give an assessment," Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. "Those present gave their evaluation of the situation as a whole, and discussed particular areas of human-rights violations." Tatyana Lokshina, the head of the Demos human-rights center, said they had discussed recent troubling legislation that some fear could be used against the political opposition, rule of law issues, and the human-rights situations in the Caucasus. "We talked about the problems of weak democratic institutions, the problem of freedom of speech, and the situation in the judicial system," she told Interfax news agency.
Svetlanna Gannushkina told Ekho Moskvy radio that the activists discussed persistent corruption, growing restrictions on media access for opposition and rights groups and continuing violence in the troubled North Caucasus region, where Chechnya is located. Vladimir Lukin, the government-appointed human rights ombudsman, meanwhile, was quoted by Interfax as saying that during the meeting, he told Rice that human rights should be discussed in a dialogue rather lecturing in a "doomsday" style.
The State Department has frequently criticized what Washington regards as creeping authoritarianism among Putin and other top Russian leaders. Its most recent human-rights report on Russia notes continuing centralization of power in the Kremlin, a compliant legislature, political pressure on the judiciary, intolerance of ethnic minorities, corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, and media restrictions and self-censorship.
Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates later met with Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov for talks on trade and economic relations, including ongoing negotiations for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. Moscow and Washington signed a key trade agreement last November that removed the last major obstacle in Moscow's 13-year journey to join the 149-member WTO. However, Moscow must still conclude other outstanding bilateral deals and must assuage growing European Union concerns about energy supplies. The Russian government press service said Zubkov also pressed the Americans on removing the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Soviet-era regulation that has restricted bilateral trade and remained a key irritant in U.S.-Russian relations.
Rice Meets Putin's Opposition