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Meeting between Bush, Putin reveals divisions on sensitive issues

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia—President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to show unity Thursday, but their blunt and sometimes testy exchanges over Putin's commitment to democracy showed that relations between the two remained sensitive.

On the final day of his five-day tour to repair relations with Europe, a jocular Bush found himself at a news conference standing next to a stone-faced Putin, who appeared peeved at questions of whether he's rolling back democratic government as he consolidates power in his own hands.

"Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy," Putin said defensively. "This is our final choice and there is no way back, there can be no return to what we used to have."

Putin portrayed his country as misunderstood in Western capitals.

"I get the impression that sometimes the public in the now-partner countries do not have the full knowledge and, consequently, do not have the full understanding of what is taking place in the Russian Federation," he said.

However, the meeting, which Bush described once Thursday as "frank"—a diplomatic euphemism for "contentious"—suggested that U.S.-Russian relations are maturing to the point where their leaders can disagree on some issues and cooperate on others. After the hostility of the Cold War and the optimistic glow that followed the Soviet Union's collapse, that may represent progress toward a more stable relationship.

Bush met for two and a half hours with Putin—more than an hour of that one-on-one except for translators—in a 15th-century castle overlooking this Slovak capital. Bush came to Bratislava with a mandate from U.S. lawmakers and human-rights advocates to pressure Putin over Moscow's meddling in Ukraine's elections and his efforts to centralize power, seize control of Russian radio and television, and marginalize political opponents.

All week, Bush had signaled that he was going to challenge Putin on those issues as well as Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear program. Washington and European capitals fear that Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons; Putin has said he believes Iran is seeking only peaceful nuclear energy.

Bush said he presented his concerns to Putin "in a constructive and friendly way," lauding Russia for the "tremendous progress" it's made in the almost 15 years since the Soviet Union collapsed.

"We may not always agree with each other, and we haven't over the last four years—that's for certain—but we have found a lot of agreement, a lot of common ground," Bush said.

Both pointed to a series of new agreements as examples of how well the relationship is working. They agreed:

_That neither Iran nor North Korea should possess nuclear weapons, and to support diplomatic efforts as the method for attaining their goal.

_To increase security at Russia's nuclear plants and weapons stockpiles to prevent terrorists from gaining control of them.

_To limit illicit sales and reduce stocks of shoulder-fired missiles known as MANPADS—man-portable air defense systems—although Russia wouldn't agree to stop sales of similar weapons to Syria.

But the agreements did little to mask the differences between Bush and Putin, particularly on Russia's version of democracy. Putin flashed anger at the suggestion that he's quashing the electoral process for regional leaders, and compared the new method to America's election system.

"I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that the leaders of the regions of our federation will not be appointed by the president, that canvasses will be presented, will be submitted to regional parliaments that are elected through secret ballot by all the citizens," he said sternly. "This is, in essence, a system of the Electoral College, which is used on the national level in the United States, and it's not considered undemocratic."

He used a question from a Russian journalist about Bush's assertion that Russia doesn't have a free press to jab at his critics.

"First of all, I'm not the minister of propaganda," he said. "Second, we discuss all issues in absolute openness."

Bush, too, was put on the defensive. When a Russian journalist suggested that the Netherlands is more democratic than the United States, Bush said, "I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you, our country is one that safeguards human rights and human dignity, and we resolve our disputes in a peaceful way."

Putin backed Bush on that one, offering a rare smile as he called the Netherlands analogy a "curious choice." "The Netherlands is a monarchy, after all," he observed.

Earlier, Bush stressed the importance of freedom and democracy in a speech to about 4,000 people who braved snow to gather in Bratislava's town square. He praised the wave of democracy that's swept through formerly communist Eastern Europe and ex-Soviet republics and linked their quest for freedom to the war in Iraq.

"Many of you can still recall the exhilaration of voting for the first time after decades of tyranny," Bush said. "And as you watched jubilant Iraqis dancing in the streets last month, holding up ink-stained fingers, you remembered Velvet Days," a reference to the former Czechoslovakia's bloodless "Velvet Revolution."

As Bush spoke, protesters jeered and whistled, but were kept at bay by barricades and police. Demonstrators carried signs that read "Wanted for Crimes Against the Planet," "Talk About Peace" and "No AK 47s and No MiG 21."

Bush ignored them.

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

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