Bush expected to press Putin on democracy

Presidents' talk could shape course of relations between U.S. and Russia

February 24, 2005|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - President Bush said this week that he was looking forward to having a "nice talk" with his good friend Vladimir.

But when Bush meets Russian President Vladimir V. Putin today in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, analysts expect the U.S. president to raise pointed questions about the erosion of democracy in Russia. The course of U.S.-Russian relations, which have deteriorated over the past year, may depend on how Putin responds.

"I think it is the last meeting before Bush decides what to do with Russia," said Viktor A. Kremenyuk, deputy director of the prestigious Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies. "He has some legitimate questions for Mr. Putin. He wants to look deep into his eyes. And largely on these answers, he will decide what to do with Mr. Putin."

At his inauguration last month, Bush pledged to promote democracy and freedom worldwide. He has an opportunity to follow through, some analysts say, by challenging what they regard as Russia's creeping authoritarianism.

If Bush takes a hard line with Putin, Russian and Western analysts agree, it will not herald the beginning of a new Cold War. But Bush could revive the diplomatic style of the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan took on the role of friend to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev even as the U.S. president also harshly criticized the Communist regime's repressive policies.

Bush hinted that he, too, might play good cop, bad cop at his meeting with Putin.

"It is ... important for us to have a nice talk, to understand each other and to understand the process of decision-making," Bush said in an interview this week with the Russian paper Izvestia. "I want to talk to him, I want to ask why he acts the way he does. I reckon that he wants to ask similar questions."

The other issues at today's meeting include the security of Russia's vast nuclear arsenal, Moscow's sales of advanced weapons systems abroad, and efforts to bring Russian oil and natural gas to U.S. markets.

But it's not clear how deep discussions of these issues will go if the two presidents spend most of their meeting debating who is the more committed to democratic values.

The topic is almost certain to surface. "This is something the president feels very strongly about," said a senior U.S. diplomat here. "More democracy rather than less ... is ultimately the best thing for Russia."

And a more democratic Russia, the argument goes, is a more stable and reliable partner for the United States.

"Putin can only say one thing," Kremenyuk said. "That what he is doing inside Russia is strengthening Russian democratic institutions and strengthening the free market. Nothing else will change Mr. Bush's approach."

Putin himself put a positive spin on the talks, telling a Slovenian reporter Tuesday that "fundamental relations between Russia and the United States ... have never been so high."

If Bush starts to scold, Putin isn't likely to listen quietly. In particular, analysts and diplomats say, he might accuse the United States of trying to isolate and weaken Russia in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. As evidence, he could point to Washington's establishment of a string of military bases in the region, as well as its support for Western-oriented leaders such as Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili and Ukraine's Viktor A. Yushchenko.

Bush will try to reassure Putin that U.S. efforts to promote democracy are not directed against Moscow. "Trying to pressure, squeeze or isolate Russia is just not on our agenda," said the U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition he not be further identified.

Whatever Putin says today, he will be speaking from a position of weakness, at least compared with earlier summits.

Until recent months, Russians regarded Putin as a man of steel, but he is increasingly seen as foundering while trying to exercise the power he has amassed over the past five years.

His challenges are economic and political. Inflation rose last year to a worrying 11.7 percent; oil production - the country's most important export - has steadily dropped since October; the pace of foreign investment has slowed since the government effectively renationalized the gargantuan Yukos Oil Co.

Pensioners and others have taken to the streets to protest reductions in government subsidies. Scattered protests continued yesterday, even as the nation celebrated Red Army Day.

Relatives of the victims at School No. 1 in Beslan and Moscow's Dubrovka theater continue to demand an explanation for official actions in those tragedies, which together claimed more than 460 lives.

Chechens have an elected government, and officials say there are fewer Russian troops in Chechnya than four years ago. But independent observers questioned the legitimacy of last year's Chechen vote, and human rights groups say Russian-sponsored Chechen forces continue to wage a dirty war against suspected insurgents.

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