Los Angeles Times
May 8, 2005
President Bush brought a list of concerns about Moscow's democratic backsliding to a meeting with Vladimir Putin on Sunday and the Russian leader was ready with his own complaints about the United States.
Unlike the contentious debate that flared publicly at a February news conference, Sunday's discussions were kept behind the closed doors of Putin's dacha where he received Bush and his wife, Laura, 25 miles west of the Kremlin. After their private talks, Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, were having dinner with the Bushes.
Earlier in the day, Bush celebrated the end of World War II 60 years ago at an American cemetery in Margraten in the Netherlands, emphasizing the themes of democracy and freedom.
"The world's tyrants learned a lesson: There is no power like the power of freedom and no soldier as strong as a soldier who fights for that freedom," Bush told a crowd of thousands, including many white-haired war veterans who wore plastic rain ponchos on a raw spring morning.
"On this day we celebrate the victory they won," Bush said, "and we recommit ourselves to the great truth that they defended: that freedom is the birthright of all mankind."
Relations between Bush and Putin have soured of late amid U.S. unhappiness with Russian missile sales to Syria and crackdowns on business and Moscow's complaints of American meddling in its traditional sphere of influence.
Even before Bush arrived in Moscow, Putin appeared increasingly irritated at Bush's criticism of Russia's treatment of its former republics and the president's push for democracy along Russia's borders. Bush said at an earlier stop in Latvia that Russia should acknowledge the Soviet Union's domination of Central and Eastern Europe and its harsh occupation of the Baltic country.
"This is not an issue of lecturing Russia," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on Air Force One. "It is that the United States and Russia have a deep and broad relationship. We'd like it to get deeper and broader. And the issue of common values and how Russia's democracy progresses is one of the issues on the agenda, an important issue on the agenda."
Rice took issue with Putin's assertion last month that the collapse of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."
"I'm not going to try to second guess President Putin on this," Rice said. "I do know it was traumatic for many people to see the Soviet Union collapse. That's not surprising. Quite clearly the fall of the Soviet Union has led to some very good things including democracies throughout Eastern Europe and Central Europe and free Baltic states."
The United States has expressed repeated concern that Putin is quashing dissent and consolidating power.
Putin said in a television interview that the United States should question its own democratic ways before looking for problems with Russia's. In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes," Putin also said the United States shouldn't try to export its democracy, as it is trying to do in Iraq. The Russian leader pointed to what he believes are drawbacks to America's own brand of democracy, including the Electoral College system.
The Russian leader also has rebuffed calls from Bush and others for an apology for the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Bush on Monday will join Putin and dozens of world leaders at a Red Square parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Bush has no scheduled public remarks during his 24-hour stay in Moscow.
Moscow has not disguised its unhappiness that Bush's four-nation trip was planned to bracket his stop in Russia with visits to two former Soviet republics, Latvia and Georgia.
A day before arriving in Moscow, Bush said in a speech that Putin should not fear the growth of democracy around Russia's borders and that "no good purpose is served by stirring up fears and exploiting old rivalries in this region."
Rice said Bush and Putin intended to cover a range of issues like Iran, Iraq, the broader Middle East and economic issues such as Russia's hopes of joining the World Trade Organization.
She said the United States has been encouraging Russia to sign border treaties with its former republics in the Baltics, without success.
"The future of Baltic and Russian relations should not be one of tension," Rice said. "And I think that's the message that the president will deliver." She acknowledged that the history has been "an unhappy and tragic one."