Bush Touts NATO Expansion Ahead of Putin Meeting

President Bush celebrated NATO's expansion into former communist territory on Saturday and urged further enlargement, highlighting differences with Moscow hours before final talks with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Bush congratulated the Eastern European nations of Croatia and Albania for the invitations to join NATO that they won this week at the military alliance's summit in Bucharest, Romania. He urged a similar welcome for Macedonia, which snagged on Greek objections. The president reinforced that message immediately after his speech in a public square here by honoring the newest members of NATO's club over lunch.

Bush called the invitation to join NATO "a vote of confidence that you will continue to make necessary reforms and become strong contributors to our great alliance."

"Henceforth, should any danger threaten your people, America and the NATO alliance will stand with you and no one will be able to take your freedom away," he said to cheers from an audience of thousands packed into St. Mark's Square, used as the site of the inauguration of every Croatian leader for the past 700 years and considered "the center of Croatian politics."

Such praise for the spread of democracy on Russia's doorstep — and for the promise of Western military protection for that freedom — was not likely to be cheered in Moscow, however. Bush's focus on freedom comes as his administration continues to harshly criticize increasing Kremlin authoritarianism.

So, even as Bush has sought in recent days to downplay tensions between the United States and Russia, he used his overnight stay in Croatia, as well as one in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine earlier in his weeklong trip, to showcase some of the differences that have caused those tensions.

By evening Saturday, Bush was to be at Putin's summer home at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The two are to cap an often contentious seven-year relationship that will come to end when Putin leaves office next month. They hope to produce a new "strategic framework" to guide relations to a less rocky future beyond their time in office.

Over dinner and again in talks Sunday, Bush and Putin are expected to make nice and emphasize the positive, such as the strategic framework and Russia's agreement this week to allow shipment of nonmilitary NATO supplies to Afghanistan through its territory.

But the U.S. plan to deploy a missile shield in Europe is a major source of friction between the two countries. Though the concept is vehemently opposed by Russia, it won NATO leaders' full support this week.

And the U.S. desire to see NATO open the admission process for Ukraine and Georgia also roils Russian officials. The ex-Soviet republics' aspirations to become part of the alliance were snubbed at this week's NATO summit, a victory for Putin. But Bush and his aides have been quick to point out that alliance leaders vowed to eventually open the path to joining, possibly as early as December. Putin's victory, they say, may be short-lived.

Bush did not directly tweak Russia in his speech, and while advocating further NATO enlargement, he never mentioned Ukraine and Georgia. But he included themes that could rankle.

Bush pointed out the success of U.S.-supported democratization in the volatile Balkans, where the effects of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia still roil relations between Washington and Moscow. Most recently, the United States and many of its European allies rallied around independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo. Russia, supporting Serbia, strongly opposed that, too.

Bush also discussed the importance of security and stability in the Balkans, noting that at their summit in Romania, the NATO leaders offered "intensified dialogue" to Bosnia and Montenegro, two other states once part of Yugoslavia.

"The NATO alliance is open to all countries in the region," he said. "We hope that, soon, a free and prosperous Serbia will find its rightful place in the family of Europe and live at peace with its neighbors. With the changes under way in this region, Europe stands on the threshold of a new and hopeful history."

Bush received little enthusiasm for his plug for Serbia, another ex-Yugoslav country. Croatia declared independence in 1991 but then fought a war with its rebel Serbs who opposed it. The crowd gave only subdued applause to his talk of the importance of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Croatia has troops in Afghanistan, but not Iraq.

Croatia's former nationalism once made Washington wary, and the U.S. did not recognize its independence until 1992. The country later drew Bush administration ire by opposing the U.S.-led war in Iraq and refusing to allow U.S. soldiers exemption from war crimes prosecution. But Croatia's emergence as a stable nation in the turbulent region, the pro-Western government it elected in 2000 and its contribution in Afghanistan more recently has earned it U.S. support.

"We stand together as one free people," Bush said.

There was little chance of an unfriendly crowd for Bush, as invitations to his speech were given to the Croatian government to distribute. Indeed, he was welcomed warmly, with people spilling into side streets to hear him and applauding frequently. A long-stem rose was thrown on stage as he arrived, and people hugged and kissed him as he left.

"It's a great honor for our homeland," said Nikola Petir, a 66-year-old technician who came with his 18-year-old son, Marko. "We are a small nation — I think we'll have more support from the world after his visit."

But hundreds of anti-war demonstrators protested Friday night upon Bush's arrival. And on Saturday, dozens gathered peacefully at Flowers' Square in downtown Zagreb. They had been invited to sign a giant postcard for Bush, "as a message from the people who would not have been among the chosen ones at the St. Mark's Square," said Tomislav Bosanac, one of the organizers. Over a picture of Croatia on the postcard, there was a handwritten message: "Please don't come back."

Bush also met Saturday with Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, promising improved trade relations and the easing of travel restrictions.