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Bush, Putin try to ease tension

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Times Staff Writer

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Sunday became the first foreign leader hosted by President Bush at his family’s summer home on the Maine coast, enjoying a speedboat ride and settling in for a lobster and swordfish dinner before more formal talks scheduled for today.

The visit, scheduled to last less than 24 hours, is designed to smooth a relationship that has hit rough spots in the last year. Instead of a formal summit, Bush opted for a more intimate setting, in the home where his father has spent summers since childhood.

“It’s pretty casual up here, as you know, unstructured,” Bush said as he waited in the driveway for Putin’s motorcade to arrive.

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Putin was greeted at the airport by former President George H.W. Bush. The current president greeted Putin at the house on Walker’s Point, along with First Lady Laura and his mother, Barbara, who received kisses and flowers from the Russian president.

The meeting got off to a fast start when Bush took Putin for a ride in the family speedboat as tourists watched from shore. At a dinner Sunday evening, the two discussed policy issues and the upcoming elections in both countries, according to a Kremlin spokesman.

“It was really a family-like dinner,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “It was a real family-style dialogue. They set a very high standard of being sincere to each other.”

Relations between the two countries hit a high point after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Putin became the first foreign leader to express condolences and offer assistance.

Since then, disagreements over the Iraq war, Iran’s nuclear aspirations, the status of Kosovo and U.S. plans to install missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe have damaged relations to the point where Putin has compared the United States’ foreign policy to that of Nazi Germany.

The two leaders are likely to discuss all those topics, but neither side expects any significant agreements or breakthroughs.

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When the elder Bush was in the White House, foreign leaders were frequent guests at the rambling compound on a rocky promontory near this resort village. But the younger Bush prefers his Crawford, Texas, ranch, so Putin has the distinction of being the first foreign leader to be his guest at Walker’s Point.

The former president is the nominal host of the meeting, but he has sent out the message to family and staff that the two current presidents must be left alone for long intervals.

All the same, the presence of the former president is considered an extra honor for Putin, who has expressed frustration at what Russian officials have described as U.S. neglect and preoccupation with the war in Iraq.

Putin is accompanied by just two aides, as is Bush: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley. They were to have a social dinner Sunday night and a more formal business meeting this morning. At the conclusion of the latter session, the two leaders were to take questions from reporters.

Hundreds of anti-Bush protesters rallied Sunday in the center of Kennebunkport. Some wore orange jumpsuits and black hoods, in an apparent reference to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and many held up signs reading “Impeach.” Among the few signs making reference to Putin’s visit was one reading “Bush and Putin, Stop Yer Shootin.”

maura.reynolds@latimes.com

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