On the eve of high-profile talks in Moscow with the Kremlin leadership,
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has expressed concern over Russia’s political direction.
Ms Rice arrived in Moscow on Tuesday, but her visit got off to a rocky start with a bomb threat at her hotel forcing her to consider alternative accommodation.
En route to Moscow, she said the US had “continuing concerns about the course of democratisation in Russia and issues concerning the rule of law.”
“There’s no doubt when we talk about the trends – the trends have not been positive on the democracy side,” she added.
Ms Rice said she was particularly concerned about the centralisation of power in the Kremlin, the state of the judiciary and a clampdown on electronic media.
She also signalled the US was keeping a sharp eye on Mr Putin’s pledge to step down after a second term in office in 2008.
Ms Rice said that Washington did not want to isolate Russia, which is trying to gain membership of the World Trade Organisation, Moscow had to resolve some issues before it becomes a WTO member, most notably laws to protect intellectual property rights.
The chief US diplomat also expressed concern about Russia’s cooperation in the disposal of stockpiles of nuclear materials that could potentially fall into terrorists’ hands.
Secretary Rice is due to meet Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Putin on Wednesday, before heading to Lithuania for a NATO meeting.
In Lithuania she is also due to meet with opposition leaders from the former Soviet republic of Belarus, which is run by hardline President Alexander Lukashenko.
Ms Rice is expected to press her case for democracy in Belarus, which she described as the “last dictatorship in Europe”.
“Belarus has been held back by the nature of (the Lukashenko) regime. It is not possible to integrate into anything,” she said. “The Belarussian people deserve better than that.”
Washington’s stance on Belarus threatens to raise further tension with President Putin, who has already been at odds with the US over democratic movements in other ex-Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia.