MOSCOW – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) 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 democratic ferment, 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 (search) 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 Rice party delayed its arrival at the Renaissance Hotel in Moscow because of a bomb threat that was later found to be phony.
While Russia security services swept the hotel, Rice went to the ambassador's residence and members of her party went to the embassy.
A senior State Department official said there were two bomb threats — one at the hotel itself and an earlier one in the vicinity of the hotel. The party learned of the threat while still airborne.
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 the change to appointed governors of provinces as opposed to the previous electoral system.
Rice said there is no thought of seeking Russia's expulsion from the so-called G-8 (search), 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 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.