PRAGUE, Czech Republic—President Bush gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a double-edged message Tuesday, reassuring him that he has nothing to fear from a missile-defense system that he abhors, then slapping them verbally for backsliding on democratic reforms.
Bush's words threatened to inflame his already tense relationship with Putin and to overshadow the Group of Eight Summit that opens Wednesday in Germany.
Bush said he intends to tell Putin when the two leaders meet Thursday at the G-8 summit that the U.S. plan to build a Europe-based missile-defense system poses no threat to Russia.
"My message will be, Vladimir—I call him Vladimir—that you shouldn't fear a missile-defense system," Bush said after meeting with Czech leaders at the ninth-century Prague Castle. "As a matter of fact, why don't you cooperate with us on a missile-defense system? Why don't you participate with the United States?"
After thus extending an olive branch, Bush criticized Putin shortly afterward for repealing democratic reforms in Russia, during a speech extolling the expansion of democracy around the world.
"In Russia, reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Bush said. "Part of a good relationship is the ability to talk openly about our disagreements."
Putin has been livid about the Bush administration's drive to install a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland as part of a system that the White House says is needed to block a nuclear attack from a "rogue" nation such as Iran—which doesn't have a long-range ballistic missile and won't for at least eight years, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
Putin argues that the system could be used against Russian missiles and would upset the balance of forces in Europe. He's opposed it with increasingly Cold War-like rhetoric. In an interview with foreign journalists published Monday, Putin threatened to point Russian missiles at European sites if the White House installs the system in Europe.
Bush has been trying to soothe Putin. On Tuesday, he invited Putin to send Russian generals to the United States to see how the system would work. Next month he'll host the Russian president at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Putin isn't the only one who's worried about the missile-defense system. Polls show that more than 60 percent of Czechs oppose it, and more than 1,000 people protested it last weekend in Prague.
"The Cold War is over," Bush said in his speech Tuesday. "The people of the Czech Republic don't have to choose between being a friend to the United States or a friend with Russia. You can be both. We don't believe in a zero-sum world. We don't believe that one should force a country to choose. We believe, as a matter of fact, when we work together we can achieve important objectives."
The Czech government supports the missile-defense system even though its people don't.
"We regard as important (that) President Bush has promised to make maximum efforts to explain these issues to Russia and President Putin," Czech President Vaclav Klaus said.
Bush spoke on his final day in Prague, his first stop on a six-nation, eight-day European tour. He left the Czech capital Tuesday afternoon for the Baltic seaside resort of Heiligendamm, Germany, for the two-day G-8 summit, a meeting of leaders from eight of the world's leading industrialized nations.
The summit will take place under heavy security, as rock-throwing violence from an estimated 1,000 ninja-clad Anarchists last weekend has become the talk of Germany. Their numbers are expected to expand to 2,500 or so Wednesday.
German officials have erected a 7-and-a-half-mile-long, 8-foot-high perimeter fence topped with razor wire to keep protesters at bay. Protesters aren't supposed to get within six miles of the summit's perimeter.
Organizers estimate that 14,000 protesters are near the summit site, with more expected to arrive by train and bus. Police and politicians have argued about whether security forces should be allowed to use rubber bullets to stop the protesters, who've already injured 500 police officers, including breaking bones.
In a symbolic gesture, about 1,000 protesters crowded near airport roads in Rostock in a bid to stop Bush from reaching the summit. The president, however, took a helicopter to the site.
Climate change and reducing African poverty and debt will top discussions among heads of governments from Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.
The G-8 leaders are at odds over what to do to reduce global warming. The White House has rejected a proposal from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the summit's host, that would put mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.
Bush is pitching a less ambitious plan that he unveiled last week. It would convene a summit of at least 15 of the world's top polluters—including India and China—to set long-term goals for reducing emissions through voluntary measures.
He may have a hard time persuading his peers to go along with that, but overall he could have an easier time dealing with his fellow G-8 leaders than ever before because of the group's changing members.
Gone are French President Jacques Chirac, perhaps Bush's least favorite world leader because of his aggressive opposition to the war in Iraq, and Junichiro Koizumi, the big-haired, Elvis-crooning Japanese prime minister who was perhaps Bush's favorite.
In their place are French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. They join Merkel, who replaced Iraq-war critic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at last year's G-8 summit, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his second year, and incoming British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to form a group that Bush should feel comfortable with.
"It's also worth pointing out that at the G-8 summit there will be a collection of center-right governments across the board, with one exception, (Prime Minister Romano) Prodi in Italy," said Charles Kupchan, former director of European Affairs for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center in Washington. "Overall, I would say the shift in the leadership that is taking place as we speak works to Bush's advantage and to the betterment of U.S-European relations."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007