In Meeting, Bush to Press Putin on Democracy in Russia

Posted in Russia | 24-Feb-05 | Source: The New York Times

U.S. President George W. Bush, left, and the Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in the castle in Bratislava, Slovakia, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005.

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - George W. Bush will question Vladimir Putin about what the West sees as Moscow's backsliding on democracy at a summit on Thursday that could bring a new, chillier tone to U.S.-Russian relations.

The two presidents, who call each other by their first names, will meet in Slovakia in central Europe for 90 minutes of talks on issues ranging from Iran's nuclear ambitions to Russia's ties with former fellow Soviet republics.

A senior Bush administration official said the leaders would announce agreements on safeguarding nuclear materials and increasing nuclear security cooperation, as well as an effort to limit the spread of shoulder-fired missiles.

The nuclear agreements, the official said, were to ``secure the nuclear arsenals of both countries to protect against terrorism.''

He stressed that both governments had an active cooperative spirit, despite Bush's remarks in Brussels at the start of his trip to Europe this week that Putin had to ``renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law.''

Despite Bush's tough rhetoric, his behind-the-scenes message may be a softer one, reflecting his personal respect for Putin.

The challenge for Bush is to get the democracy message across without causing a rift that could damage relations in other areas, such as efforts to convince North Korea and Iran to give up ambitions for nuclear weapons.

``I look forward to talking to him about his decision-making process,'' Bush said in Germany on Wednesday.

Pro-democracy groups are hoping Bush will make some headway.

``There has been a rise in undemocratic Russia at home and anti-democratic Russia abroad,'' Bruce Jackson, head of Project on Transitional Democracies, a pro-democracy group active in the former Soviet Union, said on the eve of the summit.

Bush's meeting with Putin will follow three days of fence-mending with European leaders who opposed the war in Iraq in an attempt to revitalize frayed transatlantic alliance.

In a sign both sides were finally putting past disagreements behind them, Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a leading critic of the war, vowed on Wednesday to rebuild their partnership.

Bush begins his day by meeting Slovak leaders and will speak in a town square to praise the 12-year-old country, once part of Czechoslovakia, as an example of democracy and the peace it can bring. He is the first U.S. president to visit.


After meeting Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda in Bratislava, Bush said Europe and the United States saw eye to eye in a dispute with Iran over its nuclear ambitions and that this could speed a solution.

``Hopefully we'll be able to reach a diplomatic solution,'' he said. ``I know we're all on the same page on this issue.''

The U.S.-Russian meeting comes amid growing concern in the West that the Russian president may be backsliding on democracy.

Western and Russian civil rights campaigners accuse Putin of restricting democracy by abolishing the election of provincial governors, pursuing a legal vendetta against the Yukos oil company and tightening the Kremlin's grip on the media.

They also fear he is trying to stifle democratic changes across the ex-Soviet bloc, with Russian reluctance to accept free elections in Ukraine often cited as the latest example.

Putin's defense has been that Russia must adapt democracy to its own conditions.

A senior Bush administration official, pointing to Putin's statements to Bush in previous meetings that the Russian people have a long history of strong Czars, was skeptical.

``I always get suspicious when people put any adjective in front of democracy -- people's democracy, proletarian democracy, Aryan democracy, managed democracy,'' he said.

Recently the Russian leader has irritated Washington by seeking to sell surface-to-air missiles to Syria and declaring that Iran was not developing a nuclear weapon, which the United States says it is.

Bush set the tone for the meeting with his call for Putin to renew a commitment to democracy and by expressing concern about press freedom in Russia and differences between Moscow and ex-Soviet countries trying to build closer ties with the West such as the Baltic states, the new NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.