Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that despite serious setbacks to Russian democracy, there is no sign that the country is poised to return to its totalitarian past.
As evidence of growing democracy, Rice said Russia's opposition is expected to contest the next presidential elections, and she also cited recent protests by pensioners angry over a reduction in benefits.
Rice added that "there is a considerable amount of individual freedom" in Russia nowadays.
"One can't imagine reverting back to Soviet times," Rice said while en route here for talks with President Vladimir Putin and other officials.
She arrived for her 24-hour visit on a cool, rainy afternoon. Her next stop is Lithuania, where she will attend a NATO foreign ministers meeting. The two-day visit is intended to pave the way for U.S. President George W. Bush's trip to Moscow next month as part of a five-day European tour that also includes stops in former Soviet republics Latvia and Georgia.
Democratic developments will be a major theme of Rice's discussions here. She pointed to the absence of independent voices in Russia's electronic media as perhaps her "principle concern" over Russia's current course. She also cited Putin's change to the appointment of provincial governors as opposed to their election.
Rice said there is no thought of seeking Russia's expulsion from the so-called G-8, the group of the world's most industrialized nations.
The G-8 has a summit meeting each summer. Russia is scheduled to host the summit set for 2006.
There have been some calls for Russia's exclusion from the group, but Rice said, "There is no reason we would want to see Russia isolated."
But, she added, in exchange for the privileges of G-8 membership, Russia is expected to abide by democratic principles and the rule of law.
She said the Bush administration is pushing for democratic progress in Russia because it is the only way a "deep, broad" relationship can develop, one that is based on common values.
Only through democracy can Russians "fully realize their potential," Rice said.
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Yakovenko, said that Rice's talks would span political, military and humanitarian themes.
"The main focus of Condoleezza Rice's meetings in Moscow will be on implementing the agreements reached by the U.S and Russian presidents in Bratislava," the capital of Slovakia, at a February summit, Yakovenko said in comments broadcast on Channel One.
"All these issues are under the personal control of Putin and Bush."
The Bratislava summit was an awkward encounter for the U.S. and Russian leaders, who had forged a close personal working relationship since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. After Bush insisted that a country cannot be strong without democracy, Putin countered that Russia had abandoned totalitarianism for good and had embraced democracy.
On that point, Washington believes that Russia has a long way to go, accusing Moscow of holding elections that fall short of international standards.
The tougher U.S. line toward Russia recently may have been triggered by evidence of Russian meddling in Ukraine's election last November on behalf of the pro-Moscow candidate. Other sources of American disgruntlement with Russia include the proposed sale of 100,000 rifles to Venezuela's pro-Cuban government and perceived Russian inattention to a widespread theft of American intellectual property, including movies and computer software.
For their part, Russian leaders have long opposed U.S. policies in Iraq and worry about supposed U.S. attempts to "encircle" Russia through establishing a military presence in former Soviet republics. Washington says this concern has no basis.
Russia was Rice's area of expertise as a scholar, and she served as a Russia expert under the first President Bush.
Her visit here will enable her to brush up on her Russian, which is not as formidable as it once was.
GEORGE GEDDA, Associated Press Writer