Bush, Putin Friends With Issues

President Bush's (search) meeting with Vladimir Putin (search) on Thursday will be a key opportunity for the American leader to pressure the Russian leader on democracy.

"I've got a close relationship with Vladimir, on a personal basis. I expressed some concerns at the European Union yesterday about some of the decisions, such as freedom of the press, that our mutual friend has made. And I look forward to talking to him about his decision-making process," Bush said Wednesday.

A top Russian official, speaking one day before the two men met in Slovakia, said Moscow wants to develop an intensive and frank dialogue with the United States.

Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko said the country will not react to critics' attempts to make conflicts the focus of the U.S.-Russian relationship.

"For Russia, relations with the United States have been and will be truly strategic," Prikhodko was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

The last time Bush scolded Putin, he got a lecture. And he may get another one on Thursday. Putin said this week he and Bush will talk as friends, but he said "the fundamental principles and institutions of democracy must be adapted to the realities of Russian life today." And he said the Russians will do that themselves.

In his inaugural address this year, Bush said the United States would confront every leader and every nation that oppressed democratic efforts.

"This is indeed the first test of his inaugural pledge," Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told FOX News. "He can't simply limit the cause of democracy to the Middle East. It's got to be broadened and there's been a clear erosion of democracy in Russia as Mr. Putin has shut down the independent media, arrested political opposition … so it's a real test."

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol noted that in his speech in Brussels, Belgium, earlier this week, Bush said that both Americans and Europeans have to put democratic reform into the heart of any dialogue with Russia.

"That's a big deal. You'll have to say that straight out to President Putin," Kristol said. "He [Bush] has to be strong with Putin. We've been accommodating to him and it has not done us any good. He's still dealing with Iran and nuclear materials … he's cracking down on civil liberties at home."

Added Eizenstat: "If that is repeated in Russia at the Slovakia conference and to Putin directly, I think the president would have met a very important first test on whether this is rhetoric or whether there is more reality to it."

Putin on Tuesday said he hoped Thursday's summit would be a friendly discussion of global security issues and that he and Bush would discuss Iraq, Iran and North Korea's (search) nuclear bid among other issues.

"There are many spheres of common interests," Putin said in remarks to Slovak media, which were released by the Kremlin press service. "Such meetings are always important, because they not only allow us to review the results of previous work but to plan future steps."

Prikhodko said the two leaders would also discuss cooperation in space exploration and energy.

"Russia's goal is to make its regular dialogue with the United States intensive, sincere, trusting, and pragmatic enough so that we can talk about any subject without fearing it could have some negative effect on the general nature of the Russian-U.S. strategic partnership," Prikhodko said.

Russia's ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov (search), put a more negative spin on the summit.

"Frankly, I regret that Russia time and again has become the target of harsh criticisms for the so-called 'retreat' from democracy," Ushakov said. "Due to interpretations by U.S. media and think-tank community of events in Russia, the whole environment for Bratislava does not seem favorable.

"Unfortunately this prejudice influences public opinion — and in some degree — the official position."

Eizenstat said the past four years of good, solid ties between Bush and Putin will help both leaders be open and honest without a huge fraying in their relationship, especially because the United States needs Russia in efforts like Iraq reconstruction, while Russia also wants things like admittance to the World Trade Organization (search), which means it has to play by the international worlds' rules.

"We need to have a good relationship with Russia but that's what friends are about," Eizenstat said, noting that Bush didn't make big waves when Putin cracked down on militants in Chechnya (search) and must have Putin explain why he's deviating from the path he appeared to want to set four years ago.

"But that can be done in a way that doesn't breach a friendship and keeps us on a good track with Russia," Eizenstat said. "He does have to walk a very tight rope."

Fred Barnes, co-host of FOX News' "The Beltway Boys," said Bush and Putin agree about many things but certainly not all. "The state of democracy in Russia is not one and Iran is not one either. They agree on the war on terrorism in general and checkmating China and so on. So it would be very helpful if Putin joined in."

FOX News' Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.