MOSCOW 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'.
"I think that there is too much concentration of power in the Kremlin," she later told reporters.
Her remarks and the meeting with eight human rights leaders could irk the Kremlin, which is sensitive to Western accusations it is rolling back democratic freedoms and suspects foreign governments of trying to influence next year's presidential election.
Rice told the rights activists she wanted to hear about their efforts to protect freedoms in Russia.
"I am quite confident that your goal is to build institutions that are indigenous to Russia -- that are Russian institutions -- but that are also respectful of what we all know to be universal values," said Rice.
She said these were: "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 and what can we do to help Russia to build strong institutions that have these universal values?"
The United States and other Western governments are concerned about democracy, human rights and civil society in Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
He has centralized power and mounted a huge security operation in Chechnya. Television, main source of news for most Russians, has been brought under tight Kremlin control with Putin's opponents rarely given access to the airwaves.
Opinion polls though show most Russians back Putin's tough style of rule.
Tatyana Lokshina, head of the Demos civil rights group, said she and her colleagues had discussed with Rice rights abuses in Chechnya, and fears the Russian political system discriminates against the opposition.
But Lokshina said the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay and allegations of abuse at the U.S.-run Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq had dented Washington's authority on human rights.
"When the United States criticizes, the Russian authorities say: 'Look what is happening on your patch'," she said.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said she told Rice the West should be more vocal. "An authoritarian regime is intentionally being built (in Russia)," she said.
"I told Rice that human rights activists would like Western leaders visiting Russia ... to raise human rights issues not only in private conversations but also publicly."
Rice and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday met Putin and their Russian counterparts for so-called "2+2" talks that focused on a U.S. plan for a missile defense shield in Europe, which Moscow opposes.
Rice said she had not raised human rights in her talks with Putin or in the "2+2" discussions, saying these had concentrated on missile defense and other strategic issues.
However, she told reporters on Saturday she had discussed human rights and Russia's political evolution with the Russian foreign minister, prime minister and other senior officials at subsequent meetings.
Rice said there was too much concentration of power in the Kremlin and spoke of the need for independent institutions to counter-balance the Russian presidency.
"There are questions about the independence of the judiciary. There are clearly questions about the independence of electronic media and there are, I think, questions about the strength of the Duma (lower house of parliament)."