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Bush, Putin Agree More on Iran, North Korea Than on Democracy in Russia

Feb. 25 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin found more common ground discussing Iran and North Korea than when talk turned to Putin's own country.

Standing beside Putin after meetings yesterday in Bratislava, Slovakia, Bush said they had discussed Russia's commitment to democracy and the talks were ``very frank.'' Putin responded that it's not right to ``talk about whether we have more democracy or less democracy,'' and said he wouldn't comment on some of Bush's ideas.

The two leaders played up their agreement to cooperate in efforts to dissuade Iran and North Korea from building nuclear weapons. Recent moves by Putin such as scrapping elections of regional governors and denying press credentials to critics made democracy a more contentious topic.

Bush pushed Putin on the issue about as far as he could, said Pavol Demes, director of the German Marshall Fund's Bratislava office. ``It wouldn't have been productive if he was tougher,'' Demes said in an interview.

The talks capped Bush's efforts to mend rifts over the Iraq war during a four-day European trip, his first overseas since starting his second term. His agenda also included finding new funding for Iraq's emerging government, dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions and removing Syria's influence in Lebanon. He also asked allies to refrain from selling arms to China.

`Positive Step'

``Although European leaders no doubt continue to be wary, the president's trip was a positive step,'' said Richard Morningstar, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union from 1999 to 2001. ``Relations between U.S. and EU aren't a zero sum game. We don't need to agree on everything.''

Bush secured pledges from Iraq war opponents like French President Jacques Chirac to leave behind their differences, but few new contributions for the training of Iraqi security forces. NATO offered 2 million euros ($2.5 million), a sum that pales next to the $82 billion in new Iraq war spending that Bush has requested from Congress.

On Iran, Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won Bush's promise to consider dropping his opposition to using economic incentives to encourage the Muslim nation to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

``I was listening very carefully to the different ideas on negotiating strategies,'' Bush said yesterday, the day after his talks with Schroeder in Mainz. ``And I'm going to go back and think about the suggestions I've heard and the ways forward.''

Iran's Nuclear Program

Europe needs support from the U.S. for talks with Iran to succeed, Karsten Voigt, Schroeder's coordinator for U.S. relations, said in Berlin. ``That is a process where we have made progress,'' but more work is needed, he said.

Putin privately assured Bush in Bratislava that Russia will provide Iran no further assistance on its nuclear power plant until Iran agrees to return all spent fuel rods -- which could be used to develop weapons-grade plutonium -- to Russia, a U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters.

Today's talks were the 10th face-to-face discussions between Bush and Putin. At their first meeting in Slovenia in 2001, Bush said he was able to take a measure of the ex-KGB official by looking into his eyes and seeing his soul.

Since then, Putin became a chief critic of Bush's decision to invade Iraq, and Bush disagreed with Russia's decision to help Iran develop a nuclear power plant. Bush telegraphed his questions earlier in the week, saying Russia needs to respect the rule of law and he would raise his concerns with Putin.

Bush's Concerns

``Democracies have certain things in common,'' Bush said in his opening statement in Bratislava. ``They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition.''

Putin mentioned democracy only in response to questions and made clear that Russia would make changes only on its own terms.

``Democracy is not anarchy,'' Putin said. ``It is not the possibility to do anything you want. It is not the opportunity to rob your own people.'' Still, he said, Russia has made a ``final choice'' toward democracy and ``there can be no return to what we used to have.''

Bush said Russia has made progress since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. ``We may not always agree with each other, and we haven't over the last four years, that's for certain,'' he said at his appearance with Putin. ``But we've found lot of agreement, a lot of common ground.''

WTO, Yukos

Bush and Putin said they will work together to make Russia a member of the World Trade Organization and said they would welcome increased Russian oil exports and more cooperation in their countries' energy industries.

The largest shareholder in OAO Yukos Oil Co. last week urged the U.S. to block Russia's WTO entry, saying the government pushed Yukos into bankruptcy with its demand for $28 billion in taxes. The move raised concerns that Putin is seeking to tighten control of businesses.

The U.S. official said he didn't know if Bush raised the Yukos issue during his closed-door talks with Putin.

``From an economic point of view, the WTO part of the talks is probably the most important at the moment,'' said Sergei Suverov, head of research at Moscow-based Gazprom bank. ``There is a political will to back Russia's membership, so there should be progress in future talks.''

Controls on Weapons

Bush and Putin also pledged to intensify efforts to curb distribution of shoulder-fired missiles that can bring down airplanes. A U.S.-Russian accord, reached after a November 2002 North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Prague, promises cooperation toward better inventory controls and security safeguards to cover current stockpiles and new production of the weapon, the U.S. State Department said.

Bush's Democratic rival last year, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, called for a broader effort to end the production of new bomb-grade material and keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. ``More remains to be done to turn today's promises in to actual security,'' Kerry said in a statement.

Earlier in the week, Bush raised concerns with European leaders over another arms issue, the sale of weapons systems to China. Germany, France and the U.K. want to resume such sales in defiance of a U.S.-led ban following China's crackdown in 1989 against protesters at Tiananmen Square.

``The Europeans think that the embargo on arms works pretty badly,'' said Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States at the Paris-based Institute for International Relations, in a telephone interview.

Lifting the ban would give European weapons makers such European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. access to growing demand from China's military.

Bush said allowing weapons sales to China may endanger Taiwan and U.S. military personnel in the Pacific.

EU nations ``have heard the concerns of the administration, and they will try to develop a plan that will ease concerns,'' Bush said after discussions with EU leaders in Brussels Feb. 22. ``Whether or not they can we'll have to wait and see.''

To contact the reporters on this story:
Richard Keil at [email protected] and William Roberts at
5554 or [email protected] in Bratislava.

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Joe Winski at [email protected].

Last Updated: February 25, 2005 04:38 EST
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