STRALSUND, Germany—President Bush said he will talk firmly, but privately, to Russian President Vladimir Putin this weekend about the West's concern that he's retreating on democratic reforms when the two men meet in St. Petersburg.
Speaking at a news conference here Thursday, where he was visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bush warned that his session with Putin wouldn't be a finger-wagging lecture on freedom and democracy.
"I'll be firm about my belief about the need for there to be an active civil society and (non-governmental organizations) should be allowed to function in Russia without intimidation," Bush said. "But I'm also going to be respectful of the leader of an important country. And I may not tell you exactly what I talked to him about in private."
Bush flies Friday to St. Petersburg to huddle with Putin in advance of this weekend's meeting of the Group of Eight leaders from top industrial democracies, which Putin will host. Bush and Putin will hold a one-on-one working lunch on Saturday, before the G-8 summit officially begins with a social dinner Saturday night and work sessions Sunday and Monday. The Russian hopes the summit will showcase his hometown and signify Russia's emergence on the world stage as an economic power.
Officials in Washington and other world capitals have growing concerns about Putin's commitment to democratic reform. In recent years, Putin has:
_quashed the independence of Russia's governors;
_slashed the power of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, by enacting laws that discourage effective opposition parties and favor the Kremlin-controlled United Russia faction;
_taken over the nation's only independent television station;
_jailed businessmen who could be political rivals;
_briefly cut off natural gas shipments to Ukraine, causing spot shortages in countries across Europe, which is increasingly dependent upon fuel from Russia.
Bush will meet Friday with leaders from many Russian civil-society groups in a symbolic show of support for their independence.
Vice President Dick Cheney conveyed the Bush administration's displeasure with the natural-gas cut-off to Ukraine in a May speech in Lithuania.
"No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation," the vice president said.
Putin fired back Wednesday in an interview on NBC's "Today Show," saying Cheney's comments missed their mark "like his bad shot on his hunting trip." Cheney accidentally shot a friend on a quail-hunting trip in Texas earlier this year.
Bush laughed Thursday when asked about Putin's comment.
"It was pretty clever," he said. "Actually, quite humorous—not to diss my friend, the vice president."
But Bush said he's been plenty serious when he's talked to Putin in the past about democracy. He said he was "quite pointed" with the Russian president about press freedoms when the two leaders met on Feb. 24, 2005, in Bratislava, Slovakia.
After that session, the two leaders engaged in a blunt and sometimes testy news conference in which an unsmiling Putin made a jab at the United States' Electoral College system and sternly suggested that some of Russia's Western allies "do not have the full understanding of what takes place in the Russian Federation."
Several experts on U.S.-Russia relations say Bush needs to tread lightly with Putin in their one-on-one sessions this weekend. Bush wants Russia's cooperation in solving the nuclear standoffs with North Korea and Iran. Russia is the only G-8 member that opposes separate United Nations Security Council resolutions that would impose sanctions on North Korea and Iran if they don't suspend their nuclear activities.
"Listen, we've got common problems that we need to work together to solve—North Korea and Iran are two," Bush said at his German news conference. "I hope he (Putin) continues to understand that it's in his country's interest to implement values that Germany and Russia, Germany and the United States share."
Asked about the escalating violence in the Middle East, Bush defended Israel's right to defend itself against terrorists and to attack targets in Lebanon. But he worried that Israel's retaliation could destabilize Lebanon's fragile government.
"Whatever Israel does, though, should not weaken the Siniora government in Lebanon," he said. "We're concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon."
Bush's day in Stralsund began on a lighter note, with an arrival ceremony in the medieval town square before a small crowd that greeted the president—who is unpopular in Europe—with polite applause.
Later, the president and first lady Laura Bush joined Merkel and some townsfolk for a barbecue in nearby Trinwillershagen that featured wild boar. The chief personally slaughtered the boar for the occasion and let the president try his hand at carving the cooked beast.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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