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Bush, Putin Spar Over Democracy

Times Staff Writers

Responding to a challenge from President Bush, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Thursday that his nation was irrevocably committed to democracy, but complained that his critics lacked a “full understanding of what is taking place” there.

Bush stood side by side with Putin at an often-tense news conference after their summit in this East European capital and said he had expressed his “concerns” to the Russian leader “in a constructive and friendly way.” But he continued to press Putin in public. “Democracies have certain things in common. They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition,” Bush said.

Putin offered general assurances on democracy but made no specific pledges to alter his style of governance, which has been criticized by U.S. officials, lawmakers and others as increasingly authoritarian. Since becoming president in 2000, Putin has imposed more controls on the media, parliament and the legal system and ended direct election of regional governors.

“Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy. This is our final choice, and we have no way back,” Putin said. But he cautioned that the adoption of democracy should not cause the “collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people,” adding, “Democracy is not anarchy.”

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Discussion of the state of Russia’s democracy dominated the leaders’ public remarks, overshadowing their agreements on upgrading security at Russia’s nuclear plants, establishing a program to keep nuclear fuel from being diverted for use in atomic weapons, and enhancing controls to prevent extremists from acquiring shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.

The two presidents also agreed that North Korea and Iran should not be permitted to possess nuclear weapons. They made no mention of U.S. displeasure with Russia for helping Iran construct nuclear power facilities.

The Bush-Putin summit occurred at the end of a four-day European trip for the U.S. leader that was billed as a chance for Washington to mend fences with Europe over the Iraq war. Bush kicked off the trip in Brussels with a call for “a new era of transatlantic unity” but bluntly warned Russia that it must “renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law” if it is to join the European and transatlantic alliances.

Thursday’s session was the 13th meeting between Bush and Putin, and it ran about 45 minutes longer than planned. In an unusual arrangement, they first met for more than an hour, accompanied only by interpreters. Then they continued for about 75 minutes, each joined by a squad of top aides.

Putin described the session as “a friendly one [that] has taken place in a very trustful atmosphere ... a dialogue of interested partners.” Bush said they had had “very frank discussions about a variety of issues.”

Earlier this week, a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Bush’s meeting with French President Jacques Chirac in Brussels described the word “frank” as diplomatic code that usually is “a euphemism for ‘bad.’ ”

In their post-summit news conference, Bush and Putin emphasized their personal rapport, saying they feel free to speak candidly with each other and to disagree.

“Some of the ideas that I heard from my partner, I respect a lot,” Putin said. “And 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. Thank you.”

At that point, Putin winked at Bush, eliciting a soft chuckle from the U.S. leader.

Putin was particularly forceful in defending his move to eliminate elections for regional governors and replace them with presidential appointees approved by local legislatures. He compared the new Russian system to the American electoral college.

“I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that the leaders of the regions of the Russian Federation will not be appointed by the president. Their [names] will be presented, will be submitted to regional parliaments that are elected through secret ballot by all the citizens,” he said. “This is, in essence, a system of the electoral college, which is used, on the national level, in the United States, and it is not considered undemocratic, is it?”

Putin did not mention that the new law gives the president enormous leverage and appears to ensure that he will have little difficulty getting his nominees accepted by local legislatures. Putin has previously sought to justify the new selection process by arguing that Russia must build a stronger state to fight terrorism.

Near the end of the session, one Russian journalist pointedly commented on Bush’s complaints that Russia lacked a free press and asked Putin why he didn’t “talk a lot about violations of the rights of journalists in the United States, about the fact that some journalists have been fired?”

The reporter may have been referring to a recent U.S. appeals court decision that may land reporters for Time magazine and the New York Times in prison for refusing to testify about conversations with government officials. The question may have also alluded to recent media scandals over sources and facts such as the one that is widely believed to have contributed to Dan Rather’s decision to leave his job as CBS News anchorman.

“I don’t know what journalists you are referring to,” Bush said. Then he turned to the American reporters present and quipped, “Any of you still have your jobs?”

The U.S. president went on to express his support for freedom of the press, saying: “People do get fired in the American press. They don’t get fired by government, however. They get fired by their editors or they get fired by their producers or they get fired by the owners of a particular outlet or network.”

Putin defended his approach to the media, saying he was “not the minister of propaganda.”

“What you mentioned about the comments in the media of the actions of the Russian government is testimony to the fact that we do have freedom of the press,” he said.

Some Russian newspapers, radio stations and minor television stations are still independent, but all nationwide TV networks are now controlled directly or indirectly by the state. In major Russian media outlets, there is relatively little criticism of government policy on sensitive issues such as the war against separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya.

Bush did not discuss what penalties, if any, he would support if he believed Russia had failed to make good on its commitment to democracy. He did say that the U.S. had agreed to support accelerated negotiations to speed Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. The two leaders also discussed increasing exports of Russian oil and natural gas to the United States.

Earlier in the day, Bush received a warm welcome in Bratislava’s main square from thousands of Slovaks. He is the first U.S. president to visit this nation of 5.5 million people, which became a country when Czechoslovakia split in 1993.

In his address, Bush hailed the many peaceful democratic revolutions in the region, including last year’s Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, plus Czechoslovakia’s own Velvet Revolution of 1989, which overthrew the communist government.

To that list Bush added the “Purple Revolution” -- a reference to the ink-stained fingertips of Iraqis who voted last month in the nation’s national assembly election.

Slovakia joined NATO and the European Union last year and has sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, suffering some casualties.

“I’ve come here to thank you for your contributions.... The American people are proud to call you allies and friends and brothers in the cause of freedom,” Bush told the well-bundled throng as a mixture of light snow and rain fell.

Bush also vowed to try to make it easier for Slovaks, as well as other Eastern Europeans, to obtain visas for travel to the U.S. “We want to deepen the ties of friendship between our people,” he said.

Returning to his theme of spreading democracy, Bush cited his hopes for political change in two former republics of the Soviet Union.

“In 10 days, Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls,” he said.

“And inevitably, the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the country of democracies. Eventually, the call of liberty comes to every mind and every soul. And one day, freedom’s promise will reach every people and every nation.”

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Chen reported from Bratislava and Holley from Moscow.


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