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Saturday, February 26, 2005

New York Times > Bush and Putin's Show of Unity Hints at Tensions

By ELISABETH BUMILLER

Published: February 24, 2005

RATISLAVA, Slovakia, Feb. 24 - President Bush gently expressed concern about President Vladimir V. Putin's retreat from democracy as he stood at Mr. Putin's side tonight here, and Mr. Putin responded that the United States had its own domestic problems and that he would listen to some of Mr. Bush's ideas but not comment on others.
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In a joint news conference at Bratislava Castle that was intended to portray unity but offered glimpses of tension, Mr. Bush said that he and Mr. Putin had just had a "frank" exchange in a one-on-one meeting that lasted more than an hour, the longest the two leaders have ever met alone, with interpreters the only other people in the room.
Mr. Bush did not say what he meant by "frank," but a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Mr. Bush's meeting with President Jacques Chirac of France this week said he did not want to describe that session as "frank" because "it usually means a euphemism for 'bad.' "
In the news conference, which had been built up during Mr. Bush's four-day trip across Europe as a showdown with Mr. Putin, Mr. Bush said Russia had undergone an "amazing transformation" toward democracy, which he said included universal principles like the rule of law, protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition.
"I was able to share my concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles," Mr. Bush said. "I did so in a constructive and friendly way."
Mr. Putin responded to Mr. Bush by saying: "I believe that some of his ideas could be taken into account in my work, and I will pay due attention to them, that's for sure. Some other ideas, I will not comment on."
To underscore the display of unity and warmth, the United States and Russia jointly announced shortly before the news conference three agreements on trade, energy and nuclear proliferation.
During an outdoor speech in cold, wet snow flurries earlier in the day, Mr. Bush seemed to fire a warning shot at Mr. Putin not to intervene in other former Soviet republics as he had in Ukraine.
"The democratic revolutions that swept this region over 15 years ago are now reaching Georgia and Ukraine," Mr. Bush said.
"In 10 days, Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls. And inevitably, the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the country of democracies."
Mr. Bush met with Mr. Putin in this Central European capital this afternoon in what was expected to be a strained hour-and-a-half session in part focused on Mr. Putin's rollback of democratic reforms and his crackdown on dissent.
Mr. Bush had said all week during his first trip to Europe since his re-election that he would press Mr. Putin on his reasons for his retreat from democratic reforms.
"I look forward to talking to him about his decision-making process," Mr. Bush told a group of young German business leaders in Mainz, Germany, on Wednesday, the third day of a four-day trip intended to repair European relationships ruptured by the war with Iraq.
But Russian officials had also said that Mr. Putin might challenge Mr. Bush on his own concerns about the actions of the United States around the world and the American election system.
Bush administration officials had suggested that such concerns include the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the disputed 2000 election in which Mr. Bush became president by a single vote of the Supreme Court.
Today's meeting was the first between the two leaders since shortly after Mr. Bush's re-election in November, when the two met in Chile. A senior Bush administration official said after that meeting that Mr. Bush had raised some concerns about Mr. Putin's stifling of dissent, and that Mr. Putin had given a long, elaborate response.
In part to offset the difficult atmosphere surrounding the latest Bush-Putin meeting, the Bush administration announced earlier today that the United States and Russia had agreed to a deal to limit the spread of the shoulder-fired missiles called Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or Manpads.


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