US seeks to ease friction as Bush and Putin meet

By Neil Buckley and Caroline Daniel in Moscow

Financial Times

Published: May 9 2005

The US on Sunday night sought to ease friction with Russia as presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin met ahead of World War II anniversary celebrations on Monday that have fanned controversy over relations between Moscow and its former satellite states.

The two leaders who dined at the Russian president's private residence outside Moscow will on Monday stand together on Red Square at a parade marking the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism.

The event aims to commemorate the 27m Soviet citizens who died in the war. But it has become a lightning rod for recriminations over the post-war Soviet domination of eastern Europe, as well as US support for democratic change in former Soviet republics and criticism of “backsliding” on democracy by Russia itself.

Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, said Mr Bush would look to the future in his meeting with Mr Putin, after a weekend in which the two leaders traded pointed remarks in speeches and interviews.

Mr Bush, under pressure at home to take a tough stance with Moscow, used a speech in Latvia to suggest Russia should not fear being “encircled” by democracy on its borders, after popular uprisings in neighbouring Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

The US president added that he would back pro-democracy movements in Belarus whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, is a close ally of Mr Putin which he called “Europe's last dictatorship”. Mr Bush also called the 1945 carve-up of Europe “one of the greatest wrongs of history”.

However Mr Putin hit back at criticism of his record on democracy, telling CBS's “60 Minutes” in an interview broadcast in the US on Sunday night: “Four years ago your presidential election was decided by the court.” He added that democracy had to develop internally within countries, and could not be imported.

Mr Putin had earlier written in France's Le Figaro that he would not meet demands from the three former Soviet Baltic states to apologise for the four-decade post-war occupation. Leaders of Estonia and Lithuania are staying away from Monday’s celebrations.

Mr Bush was expected to use his dinner with Mr Putin to maintain pressure on Russia over democracy, and to raise concerns over Belarus. But he was also set to emphasise that he had reminded Baltic states' leaders of the need to respect the rights of Russian minorities.

Russian television showed the two men and their wives embracing before the meeting, and joking during a tour of the Putins' residence.

Behind the carefully-choreographed display of civility lies irritation within the Russian government at Mr Bush's decision to sandwich his Moscow visit between trips to the third Baltic state, Latvia, and to Georgia, where a pro-US president, Mikheil Saakashvili, came to power in a revolution 18 months ago. Mr Bush is expected to address a crowd of 100,000 in the capital, Tbilisi, tomorrow .

Mr Saakashvili confirmed this weekend he would also not attend Monday’s Moscow celebrations, after failing to secure agreement on a timetable for a Russian pullout from its two military bases in Georgia.

Mr Bush stressed over the weekend that he would continue to support the spread of democracy in the post-Soviet space.

In Latvia, he confronted head-on Russian concerns about US interference on its borders, observing: "The United States has free and peaceful nations to the north and south of us. We do not consider ourselves to be encircled. No good purpose is served by stirring up fears and exploiting old rivalries in this region."

Monday’s Moscow celebrations will include a mass parade by veterans and a wreath-laying at Moscow's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.