MOSCOW – President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) offered conflicting assessments of democracy in Russia on Tuesday, just two days before they are to meet at a summit for discussions about global security issues and the fight against terrorism.
At a news conference with European Union leaders in Brussels, Belgium (search), Bush made clear his intention to challenge Putin on recent actions, including restrictions on the press and Moscow's (search) treatment of neighboring Baltic countries, that U.S. officials view as harmful to democracy there.
"A constructive relationship allows me to remind him that I believe Russia is a European country and European countries embrace those very same values that America embraces," Bush said. "I'm confident that can be done in a cordial way."
In Moscow, Putin defended his approach but sounded conciliatory. Asked whether he anticipates unpleasant questions from Bush about Kremlin backtracking on democracy, Putin emphasized that Russia has firmly chosen a democratic path.
"Russia chose democracy 14 years ago not to please anyone, but for its own sake, for the sake of the nation and its citizens," Putin said, speaking to Slovak media ahead of Thursday's summit with Bush in the Slovak capital, Bratislava. "Naturally, basic principles and institutions of democracy must be adapted to today's realities of Russian life, to our traditions and history."
On a softer note, he added that "a friendly look from the outside, even a critical look, won't hurt and will only help us."
At the same time, Putin warned unspecified foreigners against using the democracy issue to "achieve their foreign policy goals or turn Russia into something amorphous" in order to manipulate it. "I don't think that is the goal of our partners," he added.
"In any case, we have never had questions that would exacerbate our relations in the dialogue with President Bush," Putin said.
It was the second day in a row that Bush openly criticized the state of Russia's democracy.
"We must always remind Russia that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law," Bush said Monday. The United States should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia."
Both leaders emphasized their good personal relations, however.
"I've got a good relationship with Vladimir. I intend to keep it that way. But as well, I intend to remind him that if his interests lie West, that (the United States and its allies) share values, and those values are important," Bush said Monday.
Putin said they will talk as friends.
"The president of the United States has repeatedly called me his friend, and I also consider him a friend of mine," Putin said.
U.S.-Russian relations were boosted by Putin's support of the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but later soured over Moscow's opposition to the war in Iraq and American concerns over Putin's domestic policy, the crackdown on the Yukos oil giant and, most recently, Russian involvement in Ukraine's presidential election.
But Putin insisted Tuesday that bilateral ties remained strong thanks to common interests. "The level of trust and the level of cooperation on key global issues are very high," he said.
Putin said that Moscow and Washington must turn a page on Iraq. "The elections were held there, and, despite all the flaws, we must look into the future," he said.
He reaffirmed Russia's criticism of NATO's expansion eastward and said again that Moscow has no intention of seeking membership in the alliance.
Putin rejected allegations that Moscow hoped to prevent ex-Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia from moving closer to the West, saying that Moscow was only concerned about respect for law and stability amid opposition protests there.
He said the Kremlin would appreciate "moral, political and material support" over Chechnya, but harshly warned against calls for peace talks with rebels.
"I hope that no one would mediate on behalf of the criminals who staged terror attacks in Beslan, just as we aren't going to mediate between (Usama) bin Laden and any of Western leaders," he said in a reference to September's school hostage-taking in the Russian city of Beslan.