Bush Meets Russian Activists
In another era, U.S. presidents attending summits here would meet on the sidelines with Soviet dissidents. The Americans would offer encouragement, professing confidence that the Cold War would one day end and democracy would come to Russia.
On Monday, President Bush met with a new generation of Russian dissidents: leaders of civil groups advocating human rights, press freedom and other causes who have been the most outspoken over President Vladimir V. Putin’s growing consolidation of power.
Bush assured the 18 representatives during a meeting at his Moscow hotel that he was committed to expansion of democratic freedoms in Russia.
“He said he had dinner with Putin, and that he had an opportunity to discuss with him the entire spectrum of problems, that for him, it was important that civil society continue to develop,” said Alexei Yablokov, president of the Center for Ecological Policy of Russia and one of the delegates.
“I told Bush that if you have such good relations with Putin, then you must warn Putin against the direction he has chosen, the authoritarian path which can become very dangerous not only for Russia, but for the United States too,” Yablokov said. “He nodded and said, ‘Yes, yes, we shall see.’ ”
Manana Aslamazyan, head of Internews Russia, made a brief presentation to Bush about media restrictions. Others spoke from the Moscow Helsinki Group and Doctors of the World.
“What is most important to us is not what he told us, but the fact that this meeting took place at all, and that it was organized at the initiative of Bush himself,” Aslamazyan said.
She and others raised the issue of Putin’s highly publicized clampdown on Yukos Oil Co., whose jailed former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was once a major donor to civil society groups. Since then, Moscow Helsinki Group chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeyeva complained, Russian businesspeople have sharply cut their funding to democracy organizations.
“She said Yukos, but she didn’t mention Khodorkovsky’s name. It seemed to me that Bush didn’t quite get what she was talking about, and only when the ambassador mentioned Khodorkovsky’s name, Bush nodded with understanding,” Yablokov said.
After Bush left, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stayed for a deeper discussion. “The conversation with Condoleezza was more open and frank. We told her that huge problems exist. Her general tone was: ‘We are aware of the problems. We are watching the situation in Russia very closely,’ ” Yablokov said.
“Bush didn’t say this,” he added.
“He said that he came here not to give lectures, but to try to help.”
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.