Bush Says He'll Be 'Firm' With Putin on Rights

Times Staff Writer

Raising one of the most sensitive issues in the United States' relations with Russia on the eve of a four-day visit there, President Bush said Thursday that he was concerned about the state of basic democratic freedoms in the country.

He said he would raise the matter with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, but would do so "in a respectful way," and in private.

The president's comments went to the heart of what has become a growing debate over the course on which Putin is leading Russia and whether his government is blocking the growth of democracy there by restricting media freedom and the operations of nongovernmental organizations.

"I'll be firm about my belief in certain democratic institutions; I'll be firm in my belief about the need for there to be an active civil society -- and NGOs should be allowed to function in Russia without intimidation," the president said.

Bush spoke at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in this revived Baltic seaport in northeastern Germany, his first stop on his visit to this country and then Russia, where he will attend the annual summit of the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations.

The president also delivered a renewed denunciation of Iran, in the wake of the decision Wednesday by the U.S. and its partners to return to the U.N. Security Council to seek resolution of the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.

Expressing annoyance that Iran had not yet responded to an offer of incentives aimed at persuading it to suspend its nuclear program, Bush said: "They evidently didn't believe us. And so now we're going to go to the Security Council, and we're united in doing that."

Bush and Putin have said that they have developed a relationship in which they can privately speak their minds to each other. But Putin has clearly bristled at what sometimes appears to be a dressing-down.

When the two leaders met nearly 17 months ago in Slovakia, they conducted an often-tense news conference at which Bush reminded Putin in public that democracies adhere to the rule of law, and protect minorities, a free press and "a viable political opposition."

On Wednesday, NBC News broadcast an interview with Putin in which he took a personal poke at Dick Cheney, in response to the vice president's criticism in May of Putin's record on democracy.

Referring to a hunting accident in February in which Cheney wounded a companion, Putin said: "I think that these kinds of comments from your vice president amount to the same thing as an unfortunate shot while out hunting."

Asked whether he was surprised by Putin's comment, Bush said Thursday: "Did I think it was a clever response? It was pretty clever. Actually, quite humorous -- not to 'diss' my friend the vice president."

Bush said it was the United States' role "to continually remind Russia" that if it wants to maintain good relations, it should "share common values with us."

"We share concerns about the ability for people to go to the town square and express their opinions, and whether or not dissent is tolerated, whether or not there's active political opposition," he said. "And so I will continue to carry that message."

Merkel, who will also attend the summit, along with the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Italy and Japan, added: "There are differences of opinion between Russia and the European Union. We would wish for Russia to embark on a path that leads to a lively and very pluralistic political landscape, that they enter into a dialogue with their civil society, which is as yet not there, for many reasons."

Russia is serving as host of the meeting for the first time, giving it new visibility as a member of a club built around shared economic goals and free political discourse. The summit sessions will take place Sunday and Monday.

The question of Russia's commitment to democracy underlies a gathering Bush plans to attend today, an hour after arriving in the northern Russian city of St. Petersburg. He is to meet with representatives of citizens groups whose activities have occasionally pushed the limits of the Russian government's tolerance of dissent, even as Putin has toughened controls on parliament, the news media and the legal system.

Later today, Bush and his wife, Laura, are to have dinner with Putin and his wife, Lyudmila. Putin and Bush plan to conduct a business meeting Saturday.

Bush's visit here underscored the dramatic changes that have occurred in what was East Germany since Germany was reunified in 1990, even as he and Merkel acknowledged only in passing the steep unemployment -- roughly 20% in Stralsund -- that still besets many communities in the sector that spent 4 1/2 decades under communism.

The visit was an opportunity for Merkel to showcase the district she represents in Parliament. For Bush, it was the equivalent of a foreign leader accepting one of the American president's sought-after invitations to Camp David or his ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Stralsund, population 58,000 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, was at the time of reunification a sleepy, slightly dilapidated town that had seen better times. But now the town square, the Alter Markt, or old market, has been spruced up, its brick and stucco Gothic architecture cleaned of grime and bathed Thursday in the sunshine of a cloudless seaside day. In the town center, there are few signs of the once-rundown conditions.

St. Nicholas Church, on which construction began in 1270, borders the square. Someone managed to hang a small, and then a larger, Greenpeace banner declaring "No Nukes, No War, No BUSH!" from a small opening in a clock tower for four minutes just before the president arrived.

The president and Merkel, with their spouses, dined at a restaurant in the village of Trinwillershagen, founded in the 13th century. Under communist rule it was a showcase socialist agricultural cooperative. The menu featured roasted wild boar. The restaurant owner, Olaf Micheel, said he shot the boar on a hunting expedition Monday morning.

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