Bush and Putin Exhibit Tension Over Democracy

By ELISABETH BUMILLER and DAVID E. SANGER

New York Times

February 25, 2005

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia, Feb. 24 - President Bush expressed concern on Thursday night about Russia's commitment to democracy in a sometimes tense and awkward encounter with President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Putin, at times visibly uncomfortable, refused to yield.

"Democracies have certain things in common - a rule of law and protection of minorities and a free press and a viable political opposition," Mr. Bush said after a private meeting that lasted more than an hour, chiding Mr. Putin gently though more directly than ever before. "I was able to share my concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles."

Mr. Putin tartly responded that he would listen to some of Mr. Bush's ideas but not comment on others and said that debating "whether we have more or less democracy is not the right thing to do."

The Russian president also said that the American Electoral College was in essence a "secret ballot" and pointedly noted, "It is not considered undemocratic, is it?"

The joint news conference after their summit meeting at the medieval Bratislava Castle overlooking the Danube was designed to portray unity on a day when the two sides announced an agreement that could reduce the potential threat of nuclear terrorism by speeding up the much-delayed securing and dismantling of some of Russia's nuclear materials.

But it also offered unusual moments of heat as Mr. Bush continued to press a campaign for democracy and liberty that has received mixed reviews during his four-day European tour. It appeared to have struck one of its more discordant notes with Mr. Putin. The exchanges stood in contrast to the reception for Mr. Bush earlier during his speech to thousands of enthusiastic Slovaks in Bratislava's main Hviezdoslavovo Square, where Mr. Bush appeared to caution Mr. Putin not to meddle, as he did recently in Ukraine, with the democratic advances in a region that Russia considers its sphere of influence.

Beyond the nuclear agreement, the day produced no breakthroughs. Mr. Bush said he and Mr. Putin agreed that Iran and North Korea should not have nuclear weapons. But the two sides remained divided over Iran and Syria. A senior administration official said that Russian plans to sell Syria missiles were "destabilizing" at this point. "We made that point clear," he said.

On Russia's continued sale of equipment to Iran for its nuclear program, there also appeared to be little progress, though a senior administration official said the president was "satisfied" that Mr. Putin had reiterated his pledge not to sell nuclear fuel to Iran without an agreement that the spent fuel would be returned to Russia.

That has been important to the United States because spent fuel can be converted to weapons-grade plutonium. This month, Mr. Putin talked with Iran about expanding their nuclear relationship, a subject the official said did not come up in Thursday's conversation.

Apparently in an effort to display fuller progress, the United States and Russia jointly announced a handful of modest agreements, including an effort to limit the spread of shoulder-fired missiles and some other deals already committed to on trade and energy.

A senior administration official who took part in the nuclear talks said that the goal of the accord was to "accelerate the process" of securing Russian stockpiles. Under the agreement, the official said, most of the excess weapons fuel in Russia would be secured or converted to commercial fuel by about 2008, four years earlier than expected at the current pace of work under a plan that has been in place since after the cold war.

The slowness of the multibillion-dollar program became a heated topic in the presidential campaign, when Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, accused Mr. Bush of moving far too slowly in addressing what may be the biggest single proliferation risk in the world. Administration officials rushed to reach an agreement that would jump-start the efforts, and to show that Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin could cooperate, even as they disagreed on democratization issues.

"It was an important statement," said Matthew Bunn, a Harvard nuclear specialist who worked with Mr. Kerry's campaign last year, "because they put both presidents' names on a document that said this has to be taken seriously. And that is important because Russian security officials have been acting as if protecting a few more secrets from the U.S. is more important than protecting nuclear materials from falling into the hands of Osama bin Laden."

The two also agreed to form new emergency-response procedures if nuclear material was missing or a "dirty bomb" or a nuclear weapon fell into the wrong hands. But they failed to agree on who would be liable for accidents that might occur in the dangerous process of removing, converting and transporting weapons fuel and might not agree on that area until the two men meet in Moscow in May, officials said.

Mr. Bush said that he and Mr. Putin had had a "frank" exchange in their one-on-one meeting, with interpreters the only other people in the room.

He did not say what he meant by "frank," but a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Mr. Bush's meeting with President Jacques Chirac of France earlier in the week said he did not want to describe that session as "frank" because "it usually means a euphemism for bad."

The news conference had been built up during the president's four-day trip across Europe as a face-off between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin over the course of democracy in Russia, where in recent months Mr. Putin has taken steps to tighten state control over the economy and stifle dissent.

Mr. Putin declared that Russia was committed to "the fundamental principles of democracy." But he archly said that democracy "should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people."

Mr. Bush said that Russia had undergone an "amazing transformation" in the last 15 years. But he said he had expressed his concerns to Mr. Putin about Russia's democratic health "in a constructive and friendly way."

Some moments later, Mr. Putin responded to Mr. Bush: "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."

In one of the few moments of humor in the news conference, Mr. Bush started to chuckle, and Mr. Putin winked back.

At moments, Mr. Bush displayed the characteristic jolliness he uses when he is trying to win someone over, and Mr. Putin just as characteristically stood ramrod straight with a grim expression.

The two became the most animated when a Russian journalist asked Mr. Bush why he did not talk about restrictions to press freedom in his own country and "about the fact that some journalists have been fired?"

Mr. Bush responded that "I don't know what journalists you're referring to," and then turned to the White House press corps and said, "Any of you all still have your jobs?"

Mr. Putin, jumping to answer the question, said, "I'm not the minister of propaganda."

Both men also shot back at another Russian reporter who said in his question that "the regimes" in place in Russia and the United States could not be considered fully democratic, especially when compared with the Netherlands.

Mr. Putin responded that "you have cited a curious example - the Netherlands. The Netherlands is a monarchy, after all."

Mr. Bush responded that "I live in a transparent country" where "decisions made by government are wide open, and people are able to call people - me - to account, which many here do on a regular basis."

In one of the easier areas of common interest, the two sides agreed to a deal to limit the spread of the shoulder-fired missiles called Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or Manpads. Such missiles can be fired by one person, are favored by terrorists and pose a threat to military and commercial aircraft.

The State Department estimates that one million have been produced worldwide, but that a much smaller number, somewhere in the thousands, are in the hands of what the State Department calls "non-state actors."

In his speech to Slovaks, Mr. Bush compared events in Iraq to the overthrow of Communism in the Velvet Revolution in 1989 in Czechoslovakia, which Slovakia broke from in 1993. "And as you watched jubilant Iraqis dancing in the streets last month, holding up ink-stained fingers, you remembered Velvet Days," Mr. Bush said. "For the Iraqi people, this is their 1989, and they will always remember who stood with them in their quest for freedom." Mr. Bush also recalled the 2003 bloodless revolution in Georgia in which the rose was the symbol, and the recent democratic upheaval in Ukraine, where orange was the color of Viktor A. Yushchenko, the opposition leader who was inaugurated president in January.

He then added a colored revolution of his own, referring to the purple ink-stained fingers that Iraqis held up to show they had voted in the Jan. 30 elections. "In recent times, we have witnessed landmark events in the history of liberty, a Rose Revolution in Georgia, an Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and now, a Purple Revolution in Iraq," Mr. Bush said.

His seeming warning to Mr. Putin came with a statement that this democratic progress was not complete, but inevitable, even in those states that Russia has kept close at its side.

"The democratic revolutions that swept this region over 15 years ago are now reaching Georgia and Ukraine," Mr. Bush said. "In 10 days, Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls. And inevitably, the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the country of democracies."

Elisabeth Bumiller reported from Bratislava, Slovakia, for this article, andDavid E. Sanger from Washington.