WORLD / Europe

Bush, Putin unveil nuclear plans at G8
Updated: 2006-07-15 21:03

The United States and Russia announced on Saturday moves to avert nuclear terrorism and halt the spread of atomic weapons, in a show of cooperation before a big-power summit.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin unveiled the plans before other Group of Eight leaders arrived for a summit that will be challenged by violence in the Middle East, Iran's nuclear ambitions and global trade worries.

U.S. President George W. Bush (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin embrace at the end of their joint news conference in St Petersburg, Russia, July 15, 2006.
U.S. President George W. Bush (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin embrace at the end of their joint news conference in St Petersburg, Russia, July 15, 2006. [Reuters]

Despite cooler U.S.-Russia relations, the two men sought to project an image of harmony, playing down differences over Russia's commitment to democracy, possible sanctions on Iran and how to react to fighting between Israel and Lebanon's Hizbollah.

Referring to each other by their first names, Bush was at pains to protect Putin from his own administration's charges that the Kremlin leader was backsliding on democracy.

"I fully understand ... that there will be a Russian-style democracy. I don't expect Russia to look like the United States. As Vladimir pointedly reminded me last night, they have a different history, different traditions," he said.

"We of course don't want to have a democracy like the one in Iraq, to be honest," quipped Putin, a former KGB spy known for his dry sense of humour, after Bush cited Iraq as a country where the United States is promoting democratic freedoms.

The two men, resurrecting an idea that has been around for some time, announced a plan to combat the global threat of nuclear terrorism with measures to control nuclear material.

Separately, Bush backed a Russian plan aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons by setting up international enrichment centres under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Turning to Israel's offensive in southern Lebanon, the two leaders pinned blame on Hizbollah guerrillas.

Bush said he and Putin shared common ground on the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea. But Putin sidestepped a direct question about possible sanctions against Iran -- a point of difference with Washington and some other Western powers.

Nikolas Gvosdev, senior fellow at Washington-based think tank The Nixon Center, said the news conference broke little new ground on bilateral trade or the North Korea and Iran standoffs, and there were signs of disagreement over the Middle East.

"All of these factors indicate that the St Petersburg summit is not going to produce major breakthroughs that demonstrate either how relevant the U.S.-Russia partnership is for global security or the real utility of the G8 summit process itself," he said.

Putin's main hope for the summit is to display his nation's new-found self-confidence as it rides an economic boom as a top oil and gas exporter, and to rid itself of the image of being an outsider in the group.

The setting for the summit -- that will also bring together the leaders of Britain, Japan, Canada, Italy, France and Germany -- in a lavishly restored 18th century palace off the Gulf of Finland underscores that revival.

The summit will end on Monday with a joint statement on world issues, a non-binding document that does not tie governments to a specific course of action.

The goodwill exuded by Bush offset Russia's disappointment at failing to get a deal with Washington that would pave the way for Russian entry into the World Trade Organisation.

That fell through after negotiations that went early into the morning failed. "There is more work to be done," Bush said. But the two sides subsequently agreed to set a deadline to wrap up talks within three months.

The goodwill also appeared designed to lighten the shadow of criticism that Putin is rowing back on democracy by tight control of the media, neutralising the opposition and centralising power in the Kremlin.

The annual G8 meeting has in the past drawn sometimes violent anti-globalisation protests. But tight restrictions and heavy policing ensured that in Russia's second city they were a far cry from those at previous summits.

As G8 leaders arrived, around 300 protesters, heavily outnumbered by Russian police, marched through the city centre to protest against joining the WTO and what they said were moves by Moscow to serve Western interests.

They shouted "Outlaw the G8" and "Russia without Putin". There were no serious clashes, but after scuffles police detained more than 20 protesters who veered off the set route.

A mere 100 anti-globalisation protesters turned out for a rally in a suburban sports stadium, far from the G8 proceedings, that authorities had made available to them.

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