Putin Firm Despite Bush’s Democracy ‘Concerns’

BRATISLAVA (AFP)–During a joint press conference after a summit in the Slovakian capital Bratislava–Russian President Vladimir Putin gave little ground to his US counterpart George W. Bush’s concerns that Moscow is backsliding on democratic values

Though Putin said there could be "no returning" to a Soviet-style government–Democracy in Russia would develop at its own pace.

"We are not going to make up–to invent any kind of special Russian democracy. We’re going to remain committed to the fundamental principles of democracy that have been established in the world," Putin said.

"But–of course–all the modern institutions of democracy–the principles of democracy–should be adequate to the current status of the development of Russia–to our history and our traditions," he said through an interpreter.

"Democracies always reflect a country’s culture and customs and I know that," said Bush. "But they have certain things in common: they have rule of law–and protection of minorities–a free press–and a viable political opposition."

"I was able to share my concerns about Russia’s commitment in fulfilling these universal principles," said the US president–who has been increasingly vocal in criticizing Putin on the issue.

The Russian president responded–declaring that debating "whether we have more or whether we have less democracy is not the right thing to do," and dismissing some of Bush’s ideas as things "I will not comment on."

The two leaders–whose once warm relationship chilled when they broke over the war in Iraq–seemed closer on a range of international issues–agreeing that Iran and North Korea must not obtain nuclear weapons.

"It is important to neutralize the attempts to proliferate weapons of mass destruction," said Putin–who has rejected Washington’s charges that Tehran’seeks nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic program.

But a senior US administration official–briefing reporters on condition he not be named–acknowledged that the summit had yielded no breakthroughs on Iran–or on Russian weapons sales to Syria–which Washington wants halted.

The official said Bush and Putin met alone with only interpreters in a separate room for over one hour of the two-and-a-half hour meeting.

Bush indicated that his personal assessment of Putin had not suffered from their break over Iraq or a series of steps seen as autocratic–including moves against the oil giant Yukos–a clampdown on the media–and centralizing political power in the Kremlin.

"I can tell you what it’s like dealing with the man over the last four years. When he tells you something–he means it. He asked what some of my concerns were–and he explained answers," said the US president.

The White House released a series of joint statemen’s recommitting both countries to cooperating on energy–fighting nuclear weapons proliferation–curbing the spread of shoulder-launched rockets–and helping Russia join the World Trade Organization.

But these mostly focused on existing initiatives–and seemed designed to reinforce the idea that Washington and Moscow are still working together on important issues.

Washington and Moscow also agreed to keep working on enhancing security at Russian nuclear sites–days after a US intelligence report said theft of radioactive materials from such facilities "has occurred."

Ahead of their talks–Bush gave his strongest endorsement yet of European efforts to convince Iran not to develop nuclear weapons and said he hoped for a "diplomatic solution" to the dispute.

"We’re more likely to do so when we’re all on the same page," said Bush–who in the past has stressed that he cannot rule out using force against Tehran.

Just hours before seeing Putin–Bush seemed to tweak the Russian leader by predicting that former Soviet republics Moldova and Belarus would embrace democracy and by praising NATO’s expansion to Russia’s doorstep.

"Eventually–the call of liberty comes to every mind and every soul. And one day–freedom’s promise will reach every people and every nation," Bush said in a speech to thousands of cheering Slovaks packed in a town square.

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