ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to show unity Saturday, agreeing in principle that they need to work together to help defuse the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and to keep Iran and North Korea from becoming nuclear powers.
But a news conference after the two leaders met on the first day of the Group of Eight economic summit here exposed the divide between them over how to handle the Israel-Hezbollah conflict and how to quash the nuclear ambitions of the Tehran and Pyongyang governments.
U.S. and Russian officials failed to agree on a deal that would help Russia enter the World Trade Organization, a 149-nation group that sets rules for international trade and investment.
And Bush's promised private talk with Putin over his retreat from democratic freedoms in Russia produced a pointed jab at the White House's most ambitious attempt to promote democracy.
"We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly," Putin said to a roomful of laughter.
"Just wait," Bush responded.
The so-called G-8 summit was supposed to deal primarily with energy security and showcase an economically resurgent Russia. But the pressing issues in East Asia and the Middle East and questions about Putin's commitment to political, economic and press freedoms has changed the focus of the annual two-day event.
Bush and Putin denounced the escalating violence in the Middle East spurred by Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers last week. Israeli forces have been on the offensive ever since, bombing Beirut's airport and other targets. Hezbollah has responded by firing rockets into Israel.
Bush again said that Israel is justified in its actions, and Putin agreed but added a caveat: "At the same time, we work under the assumption that the use of force should be balanced."
On the Iranian and North Korean nuclear problems, Bush said that he and Putin agreed that "we've got to work together to send a common message to both that there is a better way forward."
But both men sidestepped questions about whether Russia would support a United Nations Security Council resolution that imposed sanctions on Iran. Russia, which has a veto in the U.N. Security Council, has expressed opposition to sanctions on both countries.
" . . . We work on the assumption that we have to find efficient ways of ensuring security around the world," Putin said. "We need to take efficient diplomatic steps that would not disrupt the gentle fabric of negotiations in the search for mutual acceptable decisions."
Saturday's meeting between Bush and his Russian counterpart became the most anticipated event at this summit largely because Bush vowed to talk frankly, but respectfully, with Putin about concerns that he was backsliding on democratic reforms.
Putin also has raised fears on both sides of the Atlantic by cracking down on Russian media freedoms, recentralizing political power in the Kremlin and using his country's natural resources to coerce its neighbors.
Bush said he conveyed his concerns to Putin, relaying stories he heard from the Russian civil society leaders he met when he arrived in St. Petersburg on Friday.
"I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq, where there's a free press and religion, and I told him that a lot of the people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same thing," Bush said.
Putin replied that Russia is committed to expanding freedoms—on its own terms.
" . . . We know for sure that we cannot strengthen our nation without developing democratic institutions, and this is the path we will certainly take," he said. "But certainly, we will do this by ourselves."
U.S. and Russian officials tried to paper over the differences between the leaders by announcing cooperative efforts to bolster international cooperation in tracking potential nuclear terrorists and improve the global response if terrorist obtain a nuclear weapon. The so-called Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, however, merely expands the already established Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led group of nations that cooperate in seizing dangerous weapons while they're in transit.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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