Bush criticizes Putin on democracy's slide
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - Struggling to repair troubled relations, US President Bush prodded Vladimir Putin on Thursday about Moscow's retreat from democracy but the Russian leader bluntly rejected the criticism and insisted there was no backsliding.
"Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy," the Russian leader replied.
Confronting criticism that he is quashing dissent and consolidating power, Putin said Russia chose democracy 14 years ago and "there can be no return to what we used to have before."
Four years after Bush said he had gotten a sense of Putin's soul and found him trustworthy, the two leaders talked for 2 1/2 hours at a hilltop castle in hopes of easing mounting distrust between Moscow and Washington. Bush said he had not changed his opinion of Putin and wanted to remain friends.
"This is the kind of fellow who, when he says `Yes,' he means yes, and when he says `No,' he means no," Bush said.
Yet Bush challenged Putin about his government's behavior, saying that democracies reflect a country's customs and culture but must have "a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition." He said he talked with Putin about his "concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles" and about Putin's restrictions on the press.
"I'm not the minister of propaganda," Putin said, standing alongside Bush at a news conference.
They also confronted differences over Moscow's arms sales to Syria and Russia's help for Iran's nuclear program. While Bush tried to keep a smile on his face throughout the session with reporters, Putin seemed tense.
It was their first meeting since Bush opened his second term promising to spread democracy and freedom and asserting that relations with all leaders would be predicated on how they treat their people. Bush faced pressure from home — from prominent Republicans and Democrats alike — to get tough with Putin, and their talks were seen by some as a test of whether the president would put his inaugural pledges into practice.
In public, Putin compared his move to end direct popular election of regional governors to the American process of electing presidents through the Electoral College rather than by the results of the popular vote. "And it's not considered undemocratic, is it?" Putin said.
He suggested that Russians who oppose his actions, such as a campaign against the Yukos oil company and his shutdown of independent media outlets, can sway public opinion because they "are richer than those who are in favor." "We often do not pay the attention to that," Putin said.
Bush was challenged as well, by a Russian journalist who asked about "violations of the rights of journalists in the United States" without giving specifics.
Bush seemed irritated. He said he talked with Putin about Russian press freedom and that the Russian leader asked in turn about practices in the United States.
"People do get fired in American press," the president said, adding that they get fired by editors or producers or others — not by government.
But while saying that a free press is the sign of a healthy society, Bush added, "Obviously there has got to be constraints. There's got to be truth."
Another question from a Russian reporter prompted a broad defense from Bush on the way democracy is practiced in the United States. "I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you, our country is one that safeguards human rights and human dignity, and we resolve our disputes in a peaceful way," he said.
Bush and Putin said they were in united on the desire to stop suspected nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. They remained at odds over Russian arms sales to Syria, which the United States wants halted, said the administration official.
"We agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. I appreciate Vladimir's understanding on that," Bush said. "We agreed that North Korea should not have a nuclear weapon."
Said Putin, "We share a common opinion in this regard and we are taking a similar approach: We should put an end to the proliferation of missile and missile technology. The proliferation of such weapons is not in the interest specific of countries or in the international community in general."
Trying to showcase cooperation, the leaders agreed to steps to counter the spread of both conventional and nuclear weapons.
They agreed to upgrade security at Russia's nuclear plants and weapons stockpiles; provide new procedures for responding to possible terrorist attacks; and set up a program to keep nuclear fuel from being diverted to use in nuclear weapons.
"We agreed to accelerate our work to protect nuclear weapons and materials both in our two nations and around the world," Bush said.
Another agreement, signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, calls for controlling shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that, in the hands of criminals or terrorists, pose a threat to both passenger and military aircraft.
The Soviet Union and now Russia have widely sold shoulder-fired missiles to customers around the world. Approximately 1 million of these weapons have been produced worldwide, a White House statement said. The senior administration official said the agreement did not cover the type of weapons that Russia is selling Syria.