President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin committed their nations Saturday to cooperation in fighting potential nuclear terrorism, as they struggled to demonstrate that they could move beyond thorny differences over the state of democracy in Russia.
They affirmed their shared goal of working closely to counter nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea and agreed to boost nuclear energy cooperation, but they failed to overcome trade differences -- or the chilly tenor of their meeting.
Putin made a dagger-like reference to the turmoil that persists in Iraq, after Bush cited the “free press and free religion” there as an example for Russia.
“We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly,” he said.
Bush gave a forced, I-wish-you-hadn’t-said-that smile. “Just wait,” he replied. He spoke so quietly that his comment could barely be heard in the front row and it was not clear whether Putin heard him.
The leaders met on the eve of a summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, with Russia the host for the first time. The conference has taken on all the trappings of an international debut for post-communist Russia, even as it has spotlighted questions about whether the country is truly democratic.
Bush and Putin said they had directed their governments to launch negotiations on an agreement that would open the door to nuclear energy cooperation, which could include trade in power plant equipment and joint efforts to develop more advanced reactors.
It was the most tangible and significant demonstration that the two countries can still move forward at a point that otherwise appears to be the most contentious since Bush took office in 2001.
U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Russian Economy Minister German O. Gref said they aimed to reach a final trade deal by October.
They said their talks had made breakthroughs on financial services and intellectual property rights but had failed to reach agreement on agricultural issues.
Gref said the main stumbling block was the issue of safety inspections of U.S. exports of frozen beef and pork. Agreement on the United States’ issues with Russia is a key obstacle to Moscow’s entrance to the World Trade Organization, a move the U.S. favors. Schwab said an accord was 90% complete.
Putin said the two leaders agreed to hold an international meeting next spring on the joint efforts by governments, private organizations and business to fight terrorism.
The two presidents issued a joint statement announcing a “Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism,” which they said would build on previous efforts to boost the security of nuclear facilities and coordinate efforts against terrorists seeking to acquire nuclear materials.
And they agreed to set up a joint foundation intended to encourage development of a private sector by providing grants that would be used to train businesspeople, government officials and participants in nongovernmental organizations promoting democracy.
The summit and surrounding meetings are taking place in the Konstantinovsky Palace and adjacent buildings in this suburb of St. Petersburg on the breezy shores of the Gulf of Finland. When Peter the Great began work in 1720 on the palace, just outside what was then the Russian capital, it was intended to serve as his Versailles.
The 1,000-room structure was heavily damaged during World War II in the siege of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was known during the communist era, but has been rebuilt to its imperial splendor.
Invariably, the U.S.-Russian relationship is colored not so much by the personal relationship that Bush suggests they have achieved as by what each leader sees as his nation’s interests.
Putin said he and Bush, whom he described as “my guest, my friend, the president of the United States, George W. Bush,” were often asked whether their relationship helped solve international problems.
“I know that he believes so,” Putin said of Bush. “I have to tell you that at the same time, it does not hamper us in standing up for our national interests.” The trade talks, he said, “are very concrete, calculable in their nature, which can be expressed in terms of millions of dollars or rubles.”
More than once Putin indicated that he had policy differences with the United States.
In response to a question about joint efforts to control the proliferation of unconventional weapons and missiles that could deliver them, Putin noted common goals with the United States.
But he said somewhat cryptically, “We will not participate in any crusades, in any holy alliances.” That suggested an effort to distance himself from Bush’s fervor on these or other issues.
Bush offered several examples of cooperation and said the nations’ relations “are very good.” He said that Iran was testing the resolve of the United States, Russia and others to determine whether they would stand firm to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
“We’ve agreed to work together to achieve a common goal. That’s considerable progress,” Bush said.
And he offered an almost-apologetic explanation of Putin’s often testy response to questions about democracy here.
“Look, he’s willing to listen, but he also explains to me, he doesn’t want anybody telling him how to run his government,” Bush said.
At a news conference early today, Putin returned to the democracy theme while reiterating that he would step down in 2008, after his second term, as required by the constitution.
“I am fully convinced that all of the work I am doing now and will be doing through to the end of my term in office is aimed at making this process of democratization and setting up a market economy irreversible in Russia,” Putin said. “I am sure the Russian people will show themselves to be reliable partners, reliable allies, and will not disappoint the other members of the G-8.”
The state of Russian democracy was a nagging issue in the run-up to the summit, as Putin has steadily consolidated central authority.
Critics say that with all three national television networks in effect under state control, the elimination of direct election of governors and growing pressure on nongovernmental organizations, Russia should no longer be considered a democracy.
The meetings that evolved into G-8 summits originally were conceived as a conference of the world’s leading industrialized democracies -- a category that some critics say fails to include Russia, either economically or politically.
Defending his political conduct, Putin said at his earlier news conference with Bush:
“We assume that nobody knows better than us how we can strengthen our own nation. But we know for sure that we cannot strengthen our nation without developing democratic institutions, and this is the path that we will certainly take. But certainly, we will do this by ourselves.”
During welcoming remarks with reporters present, the two leaders did not make eye contact. And they remained silent for the several minutes that it took for the journalists to leave the room.
Only Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was able to break the ice -- and that just by walking into the room in a light blue pantsuit.
Bush turned to Putin and said, “Very stylish.”