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INTERNATIONAL Bush, Putin agree to disagree



Published: Fri, February 25, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Both cited commonality in their joint press conference.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to show unity Thursday, but their blunt and sometimes testy exchanges over Putin's commitment to democracy showed that relations between the two remained sensitive.

On the final day of his five-day tour to repair relations with Europe, a jocular Bush found himself at a news conference standing next to a stone-faced Putin, who appeared peeved at questions of whether he's rolling back democratic government as he consolidates power in his own hands.

'There is no way back'

"Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy," Putin said defensively. "This is our final choice and there is no way back, there can be no return to what we used to have."

Putin portrayed his country as misunderstood in Western capitals.

"I get the impression that sometimes the public in the now-partner countries do not have the full knowledge and, consequently, do not have the full understanding of what is taking place in the Russian Federation," he said.

However, the meeting, which Bush described once Thursday as "frank" -- a diplomatic euphemism for "contentious" -- suggested that U.S.-Russian relations are maturing to the point where their leaders can disagree on some issues and cooperate on others. After the hostility of the Cold War and the optimistic glow that followed the Soviet Union's collapse, that may represent progress toward a more stable relationship.

Came with a mandate

Bush met for two and a half hours with Putin -- more than an hour of that one-on-one except for translators -- in a 15th-century castle overlooking this Slovak capital. Bush came to Bratislava with a mandate from U.S. lawmakers and human-rights advocates to pressure Putin over Moscow's meddling in Ukraine's elections and his efforts to centralize power, seize control of Russian radio and television, and marginalize political opponents.

All week, Bush had signaled that he was going to challenge Putin on those issues as well as Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear program. Washington and European capitals fear that Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons; Putin has said he believes Iran is seeking only peaceful nuclear energy.

Bush said he presented his concerns to Putin "in a constructive and friendly way," lauding Russia for the "tremendous progress" it's made in the almost 15 years since the Soviet Union collapsed.

"We may not always agree with each other, and we haven't over the last four years -- that's for certain -- but we have found a lot of agreement, a lot of common ground," Bush said.

Putin can't hide anger

Both pointed to a series of new agreements as examples of how well the relationship is working. They agreed:

UThat neither Iran nor North Korea should possess nuclear weapons, and to support diplomatic efforts as the method for attaining their goal.

UTo increase security at Russia's nuclear plants and weapons stockpiles to prevent terrorists from gaining control of them.

UTo limit illicit sales and reduce stocks of shoulder-fired missiles known as MANPADS -- man-portable air defense systems -- although Russia wouldn't agree to stop sales of similar weapons to Syria.

But the agreements did little to mask the differences between Bush and Putin, particularly on Russia's version of democracy. Putin flashed anger at the suggestion that he's quashing the electoral process for regional leaders, and compared the new method to America's election system.




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