Putin says Russia is on path of democracy

Leader meets with Bush, defends tighter controls

February 25, 2005|By Edwin Chen and David Holley | Edwin Chen and David Holley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Responding to private remarks from President Bush, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin declared yesterday that his nation is irrevocably committed to democracy and that his critics lack a "full understanding of what is taking place" in his country.

Bush stood with Putin at a joint news conference after their summit in this Balkan capital and said he had expressed his "concerns" to the Russian leader "in a constructive and friendly way." But he continued to press Putin publicly, saying, "Democracies have certain things in common: They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition."

Putin offered general assurances on democracy but offered no specific pledges to alter his style of governance, which has been criticized by key U.S. officials, lawmakers and others as increasingly authoritarian. Since becoming president in 2000, Putin has imposed controls on the news media, parliament and the legal system, and ended the direct election of regional governors.

"Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy. This is our final choice, and we have no way back," Putin said. But he cautioned that the adoption of democracy should not cause the "collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people," adding that "democracy is not anarchy."

Agreement on arms

The discussion of the state of Russia's democracy dominated the public remarks of the two leaders, overshadowing their agreements on such matters as upgrading security at Russia's nuclear plants, establishing a program to keep nuclear fuel from being diverted for use in atomic weapons, and enhancing controls to prevent terrorists from acquiring shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

The leaders said they agreed that North Korea and Iran should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons. They made no mention of U.S. displeasure at Russia's involvement in helping Iran construct nuclear power facilities.

The Bush-Putin summit came at the end of a four-day European trip for the U.S. leader that was billed as a chance for Washington to mend fences with Europe over the Iraq war. Bush kicked off the trip with a speech in Brussels, Belgium, that called for "a new era of trans-Atlantic unity" but bluntly warned Russia that it must "renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law" if it is to join the European and trans-Atlantic communities.

Yesterday's session was the 13th meeting between Bush and Putin, and it ran about 45 minutes longer than planned. In an unusual arrangement, the two met for more than an hour, accompanied only by interpreters. Then they continued for about 75 minutes, each accompanied by top aides.

Putin described the session as "a friendly one [that] has taken place in a very trustful atmosphere ... a dialogue of interested partners." Bush said they had exchanged "very frank discussions about a variety of issues."

Earlier this week, a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Bush's meeting with French President Jacques Chirac in Brussels described frank as a diplomatic code that "usually means a euphemism for bad."

Personal rapport

In their post-summit news conference, both emphasized their personal rapport, saying that they feel free to speak candidly with one another, and to disagree.

"Some of the [president's] ideas that I heard from my partner I respect a lot," Putin said. "And I believe that some of his ideas could be taken into account in my work, and I will pay due attention to them, that's for sure. Some other ideas I will not comment on, thank you."

At that point, Putin winked at Bush, eliciting a soft chuckle from the U.S. leader.

Putin was particularly forceful in defending his move to eliminate elections for regional governors and replace them with presidential appointees approved by local legislatures. He compared the new system to the American Electoral College.

"I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that the leaders of the regions of the Russian Federation will not be appointed by the president. Their [names] will be presented, will be submitted to regional parliaments that are elected through secret ballot by all the citizens," Putin said. "This is, in essence, a system of the Electoral College, which is used, on the national level, in the United States, and it is not considered undemocratic, is it?"

He did not mention that the new law gives Russia's president enormous leverage and appears to ensure that Putin would have little difficulty getting his nominees accepted by local legislatures. Putin has previously sought to justify the new governor selection process by arguing that Russia must build a stronger state to fight terrorism.

Bush did not discuss what penalties, if any, he would support if he believed that Russia failed to make good on its commitment to democracy. Bush said the United States had agreed to support accelerated negotiations to help speed Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization. The two leaders also discussed how to cooperate on energy matters and work to increase exports of Russian oil and natural gas to the United States.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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