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Russia must renew `commitment to democracy,' Bush says

BRUSSELS, Belgium—Three days before he's to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Bush called Monday for a joint U.S.-European commitment to press Russia to move forward with democratic reforms.

Bush, on a five-day trip to repair strained relations with European allies, touched on many global issues in his first address on foreign soil since beginning his second term, but his emphasis on pushing Russia to honor principles of democracy was most striking, for it put Putin on notice that Bush intends to confront him over his recent efforts to consolidate power.

Bush said he believes Russia's future lies with the West, but added pointedly: "Yet, for Russia to make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. We recognize that reform will not happen overnight. We must always remind Russia, however, that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law—and the United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia."

Bush meets Putin Thursday in Bratislava, the Slovak Republic. Their meeting is widely seen as the first test of Bush's bold second-inaugural vow to end tyranny and confront "every ruler and every nation" on their commitment to democracy and human rights.

Bush has been under pressure from key members of Congress—including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Biden, D-Del.—as well as human-rights groups to get tough with Putin over Moscow's meddling in Ukraine's elections, the cancellation of the election of Russian governors, the intimidation of the news media and the imprisonment or exile of pro-Western opponents.

Later, before dining privately with French President Jacques Chirac at the U.S. ambassador's residence here, Bush told reporters: "I look forward to seeing Vladimir Putin." He said they have "a good relationship. ... I intend to keep it that way. But, as well, I intend to remind him that if his interests lie West, that we share values ... and those values are important."

Bush also had soothing words for Chirac, who led global opposition to the Iraq war, which deeply ruptured U.S.-French relations.

"This is my first dinner since I've been re-elected on European soil, and it's with Jacques Chirac," Bush said. "It ought to say how important this relationship is for me, personally, and how important this relationship is for my country."

For his part, Chirac said it's time for the United States and France to move beyond their disagreement over the war.

"I feel it's so important that within the broader context of U.S.-EU relations, this relationship should continue to be cemented, broadened and strengthened," he said.

Bush's keynote speech here before a handpicked audience of European Union officials, NATO ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries echoed that conciliatory tone.

"Let us begin a new era of trans-Atlantic unity," he said, then emphasized his belief that Europe shares responsibility with the United States to help bring peace to the world's hot spots, particularly the Middle East.

Claiming that a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is "within reach," Bush took a veiled, rare swipe at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in calling for a contiguous Palestinian state.

"A state of scattered territories will not work," Bush said to applause.

The president urged Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to "put forward a strategy of reform, which can gain international support" when Abbas attends a conference in London next month hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will represent the United States.

Much as he put Russia on notice, Bush similarly challenged two U.S. allies in the Middle East with authoritarian tendencies to shape up.

Saudi Arabia's government "can demonstrate leadership in the region" by expanding the role its people play in charting their nation's future, Bush said. "And the great and proud nation of Egypt ... can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."

Bush minced no words on two more-hostile powers—Syria and Iran.

He called for Syria to do more to stop terrorists and to end its occupation of Lebanon. He declared that Iran must "end its support for terrorism and must not develop nuclear weapons."

Aware that many Europeans fear he'll use military force against Iran, Bush said that "no option can be taken permanently off the table." He quickly added that "Iran, however, is different from Iraq. We're in the early stages of diplomacy." He said his administration supports efforts by the United Nations and Britain, France and Germany to ensure that Iran isn't seeking nuclear weapons.

Still, many Europeans are fearful that Bush is heading toward a military confrontation with Iran.

"Americans are seen to have a lower threshold for the use of force than European nations are comfortable with," said Dick Leurdijk of Holland's Clingendael Institute. "The United States is comfortable with threats of force, while Europe prefers to avoid that, hoping diplomacy will work."

Turning to Iraq, Bush downplayed friction with Europe over the war, emphasizing instead that Iraq now is a budding democracy: "Now is the time for established democracies to give tangible political, economic and security assistance to the world's newest democracy."

A senior administration official, briefing reporters after Bush's speech on the condition of anonymity, predicted that the frost chilling Washington and Europe over Iraq will thaw now.

"We hope by tomorrow that NATO allies, the European allies, each will have announced some measure that will indicate support for Iraq, whether it's putting troops on the ground ... or in the multinational force," the official said.

Bush's speech drew tepid applause overall. Europeans remain chafed not only about Iraq, but also over the United States backing out of an international climate change accord, withdrawing from an anti-ballistic missile treaty and refusing to participate in the international criminal court.

Outside the hall, several hundred protesters hit the streets, some carrying signs that read "Bush Go Home."

"Bush may be acting as if it's a temporary blip, but no one knows better just how deep these divisions are," said Robert McGeehan, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations with Chatham House, a London-based research group. "Iraq merely exposed this."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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