Putin: Russia Is Committed to Democracy

By Edwin Chen and David Holley

Los Angeles Times

February 24, 2005

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said today that his nation was irrevocably committed to democracy and, during an often tense joint news conference with President Bush, he accused critics of lacking a "full understanding of what is taking place" in Russia.

After meeting for more than two hours, the two leaders openly acknowledged their conflicting views toward Russia's record on human rights and the rule of law, but they agreed to keep talking, saying that Washington and Moscow have far more in common than they do differences.

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

Seconds later, Bush told reporters: "I think the most important statement that you heard, and I heard, was the president's statement, when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia, and they're not turning back."

But Putin also responded forcefully to public criticisms of his centralization of power in the Kremlin, particularly regarding regional governments.

"I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that the leaders of the regions of the Russian Federation will not be appointed by the president. Their canvases will be presented, will be submitted to regional parliaments that are elected through secret ballot by all the citizens," he said, and then added pointedly: "This is, in essence, a system of the Electoral College, which is used, on the national level, in the United States, and it is not considered undemocratic, is it?"

It was the 13th meeting between Bush and Putin, and it ran about 45 minutes longer than planned. The men will see one another again in early May, when Bush visits Moscow to participate in the 60th anniversary celebrations of the end of World War II in Europe. They met today at Bratislava Castle, a medieval structure overlooking the Danube. Bush and Putin last met in November in Santiago, Chile, shortly after Bush's reelection.

In their post-summit news conference, both emphasized their personal rapport, saying that they feel free to speak candidly with one another, and to disagree. To drive home that point, Bush recalled Putin's vehement opposition to the Iraq war.

"There was no doubt in my mind what his position was on Iraq. He didn't kind of hedge, he didn't try to cloud up the issue. He made it abundantly clear to me that he didn't agree with my decision," he said. "And that's an important part of having a trustworthy relationship. This is the kind of fellow who, when he says, yes, he means, yes, and when he says, no, he means, no."

For his part, Putin chimed in: "Some of the [president's] ideas that I heard from my partner I respect a lot. And I believe that some of his ideas could be taken into account in my work, and I will pay due attention to them, that's for sure. Some other ideas, I will not comment on. Thank you."

At that point, Putin winked at Bush, eliciting a soft chuckle from Bush that was drowned out by the laughter in the room. In an unusual arrangement, Bush and Putin met alone for more than an hour, accompanied only by their interpreters. Then they continued for about 75 minutes, each accompanied by a squad of top aides.

Putin described the conference as "a friendly one (that) has taken place in a very trustful atmosphere a dialogue of interested partners, which became clear right away."

Bush said they had exchanged "very frank discussions about a variety of issues."

Earlier this week, perhaps in a moment of rare candor, a senior administration official who briefed reporters on a Bush meeting with French President Jacques Chirac in Brussels, described "frank" as a diplomatic code that "usually means a euphemism for 'bad.'."

At one point, Bush described their meeting this way: "He asked what some of my concerns were, and ... I told him that it was very important that capital see rule of law, that there be stability, there not be any doubt about whether or not — if somebody invests, whether or not the laws change. And I think Vladimir heard me loud and clear, and he explained why he made decisions he made."

At one point, Putin called Bush "George." The 34-minute press conference was not without its light moments. Near the end, the leaders were drawn into soliloquies on freedom of the press when a Russian journalist asked Putin why he did not bring up the firings and "violations of the rights" of unnamed U.S. journalists. Two reporters, for the New York Times and Time magazine, face jail time for refusing to disclose sources to a grand jury, but his reference was not clear.

"I don't know what journalists you are referring to," Bush said. Then he turned to the U.S. reporters and quipped: "Any of you still have your jobs?" The president went on to express his belief in freedom of the press.

Putin also prompted laughter as he began his reply. "First of all, I'm not the minister of propaganda," he said, quickly declaring that there also is freedom of the press in Russia.

"And as far as the fact that there is some kind of friction between the media and the government, there is an ongoing debate, an ongoing critical debate going on," Putin said. "There is a lot of criticism coming from the media with respect to the government. This is a manifestation of democracy. What you mentioned about the comments in the media of the actions of the Russian government is testimony to the fact that we do have freedom of the press. Although we're being criticized often of that, this is not the case."

To highlight U.S.-Russia cooperation, both governments announced a series of agreements, including escalating U.S. assistance to Russia in winning entry into the World Trade Organization and a collaborative effort to limit the availability of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, a coveted weapon among terrorists.

According to the State Department, "thousands" of such missiles are believed to be "in the hands of non-state actors."

After the press conference, Bush headed back to Washington, ending a four-day fence-mending trip to Europe.

Bush's host here, Mikulas Dzurinda, Slovakia's prime minister, strongly backed the president's approach to Russia.

"I have no doubt that President Bush completely understands the situation in Russia," he said.

Dzurinda quoted Bush as telling him: "We need to have good cooperation....On the other hand, we shouldn't do any compromise with values."

"He's able to dream," the prime minister said of Bush. "On the other hand, he's very practical."

A European official, who conferred with Bush, quoted the president as saying recently of Putin: "He doesn't understand sharing power."

Earlier in the day, Bush received a warm welcome in the town square from thousands of flag-waving Slovaks. He was the first U.S. president to visit this nation of 5.5 million people.

In his address, Bush hailed the many peace revolutions in the region — the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia, and the "Velvet Revolution" in the former Czechoslovakia. To that list Bush added "the Purple Revolution" — a reference to the ink-stained fingertips of Iraqis who voted last month.

Slovakia has marched decisively toward democracy and last year it was rewarded membership in NATO and the European Union. The republic also has sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, suffering some casualties, which Bush mentioned.

As a light mixture of snow and rain fell, he told the well-bundled throng: "I've come here to thank you for your contributions....The American people are proud to call you allies and friends, brothers in the cause of freedom."

Bush also vowed to try to make it easier for Slovaks, as well as other Eastern Europeans, to obtain visas to the United States.

"We want to deepen the ties of friendship between our people," he said.

In a pointed reference that may hit close to home for Putin, Bush mentioned the democratic aspirations of two former members of the Soviet Union.

"In 10 days, Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls," he said. "And inevitably, the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the country of democracies. 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."