Bush meets with Russian activists on eve of G-8


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- President Bush launched four days of diplomacy here yesterday by showing support for democracy activists, honoring World War II defenders of this city and dining with President Vladimir V. Putin on the eve of a summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.

Bush told the activists that he preferred to raise concerns about democracy in Russia with Putin privately, rather than criticize his "friend" publicly. But in a gesture that clearly implied criticism of the Kremlin, the deputy chairwoman of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Foundation was seated next to Bush.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, is serving an eight-year sentence on fraud and tax evasion charges that critics say were politically motivated. His foundation, which sought to promote democracy and civil society in Russia, has seen its funding frozen and has been forced to nearly shut down.

The president met with the democracy advocates at the residence of the U.S. consul general. By holding it at the start of his visit, Bush was signaling support for efforts to keep Russia from backing further away from the fledgling democracy it established after seven decades of communism.

"All the participants talked about their activities," Irina Yasina of the Open Russia Foundation said in an interview after the meeting. "Some talked about invalids; some spoke on ecological issues. Together with my friends and colleagues we spoke about problems in developing Russian democracy, problems of civil society and problems with the young generation's mentality, which is being infected with the virus of nationalism."

She said the activists are concerned that a new law regulating nongovernmental organizations "is going to knock out the last islets of freedom in Russia."

Yasina said she had expected a protocol event but was "absolutely amazed that it was a heart-to-heart conversation. While sitting next to your president, I got a feeling that this meeting did matter for him." The meeting ran about 30 minutes longer than the scheduled hour.

Bush characterized the participants as "young, vibrant Russian activists who, first, love their country, secondly, care deeply about the form of government of the country, and, third, care deeply about the human condition in their country." Bush told reporters that he had assured the 15 participants that the United States "cares about the form of government in Russia, that we believe in the universal values embedded in democracy."

He said some of them asked him to deliver messages to Putin, "which I'd be more than happy to do."

Tatyana Lokshina, head of the Demos Center for Information and Research on Public Interest Issues, said she spoke about Russia's conflict in Chechnya, where she travels regularly.

"I spoke about ... the way that anti-terrorism measures can often spawn terrorism instead of counteracting it," she said. "I spoke at length about Chechnya and the North Caucasus, about the fact that, under the banner of fighting terrorism, what's really taking place is an erosion of democratic institutions in Russia."

Lokshina also addressed legislation, awaiting Putin's signature, that she said weakens NGOs and the news media. "I explained that these new amendments could be used to shut down NGOs for simply taking part in protests and demonstrations and, also, to shut down media that cover such events in a positive light."

Lokshina said that Bush was responsive but that she was disappointed with his view that bringing up such issues privately is more effective than criticizing Russia publicly. "The human rights community has come to the conclusion that this policy has utterly outlived itself; it accomplishes nothing," she said.

Bush arrived in St. Petersburg at midday from Rostock, Germany, after meeting Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The president and his wife, Laura Bush, had dinner in the suburb of Strelna with Putin and his wife, Lyudmila Putina, at a villa on the grounds of the Konstantinovsky Palace. Putin, a native of St. Petersburg, lives in a wing of the palace when visiting the city. Bush and the other G-8 leaders are staying in guesthouses on the grounds.

Asked how their friendship has developed in the two years since they met in the same location, Bush said, "Solid friendship." But the state of the U.S.-Russian friendship is troubled by differences - not only over democracy in Russia, but over the Middle East, and, to a lesser extent, the degree to which the United States, Russia and others should push North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

In a diplomatic nod to what remains a foundation of the modern Russian psyche, Bush went immediately after arriving in St. Petersburg to a monument to the city's defenders during the nearly three-year Nazi siege of Leningrad, as the city was known during the Soviet era.

David Holley and James Gerstenzang write for the Los Angeles Times.

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