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Bush to Meet Putin in Slovakia

President Bush will meet in Slovakia (search) in late February with Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) as part of an expanding effort by the White House to improve relations with European nations.

A senior U.S. official said an announcement of the Feb. 24 meeting is expected on Tuesday.

Bush has maintained strong ties with Putin, although on occasion the administration has gently criticized the Russian government for some of its domestic policies.

The two leaders are working together, though, on countering terrorism. Bush is focused primarily on the Al Qaeda (search) terror network and the insurgency in Iraq while Putin is trying to deal with extremists in secession-minded Chechnya (search).

Bush also is going to Brussels, Belgium, in February for a NATO summit conference and a meeting with European Union leaders. The stop also is part of a renewed effort to overcome differences stemming from Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq over the objections in France, Germany, Russia and several other European countries.

In Moscow, Russian news agencies reported a summit would be held at "a high level" in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Feb. 24 during a visit by Putin.

The report did not refer to Bush, but the president's plan was confirmed by the administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The controversial election in Ukraine to choose a new president for the former Soviet bloc nation has stirred some bad feelings. Putin campaigned for the pro-Russian candidate in a race widely criticized as fraught with fraud. But there, too, the Bush administration avoided harsh criticism of the Russian leader.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an Associated Press news conference last Friday, said "there has been considerable improvement in Russia since the days of the Soviet Union. Human rights have improved. They do have open elections, not perhaps as open as we'd like.

"We'd like to see more controversy in the media, so to speak, so that all sides can be represented in the media and everybody can get full access to the media. But this is not the Russia of the old days of the Soviet Union," Powell said.

"Now, President Putin has taken some steps that we think do not lead toward cementing his democracy properly, and when that has been the case we have spoken to him about it. We have spoken to him about it in the spirit of friendship and in the spirit of asking why some of these actions are taking place," he said.

"And so Russia is not going back to being the Soviet Union. The Cold War is not coming back. And we want to encourage President Putin and our Russian colleagues to keep moving in the right direction to build their democracy on a sound foundation, and that includes free access to media, respect for human rights, and to keep moving in the direction they had been moving," Powell said.

Two former U.S. ambassadors to Russia, Arthur Hartman and Jack Matlock, sharply criticized Putin recently, saying democracy had gone into reverse under his leadership.

On Monday, Freedom House said political rights and civil liberties had become so restricted in Russia that the country has been downgraded to "not free" by the private pro-democracy group.