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U.S./Russian Presidents Tout Importance Of Relationship

  • Jeremy Bransten --> Bush and Putin during their talks yesterday 25 February 2005 -- In the end, the long-awaited Bush-Putin summit delivered precisely what political observers on both sides had predicted: reassuring words about the enduring importance of the U.S.-Russian relationship and few concrete results.

Although both presidents told journalists they had had constructive talks yesterday on issues ranging from Iran to North Korea to economic cooperation, to freedom of the press, neither Bush nor Putin offered specific details.

The United States and Russia have gone through difficult times recently, with senior Russian officials criticizing Washington's policy in Iraq and what they called U.S. meddling in Georgia and Ukraine. U.S. officials, for their part, have expressed fears that President Putin may be rolling back democratic reforms in Russia.

Bush acknowledged that both sides continue to have their disagreements. But he said the judgment he made back in June 2001 that Putin is a trustworthy partner and a friend remains unshaken. Bush said what he values most about Putin is his straightforwardness in expressing his opinions, no matter the topic, and he said this was an asset, not an impediment, to further developing relations.

"We have had, over the past four years, very constructive relations, and that's the way I'm going to keep it for the next four years, as well," Bush said. "We've had an open and candid exchange of views."

Ironically, Germany and France's open disagreement with the U.S. administration over Iraq led to a serious crisis in relations from which both sides have not yet fully recovered. But when it comes to Russia, Bush said he actually appreciated Putin's candid opposition to the U.S.-led war for its frankness.

In announcing the signing of a bilateral agreement to impose controls on the export of shoulder-fired missiles, Bush told journalists he and Putin share common goals on nonproliferation as well as on Iran and North Korea. He said both countries agreed that Iran should not have nuclear weapons.

"We agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon, and I appreciate Vladimir's understanding on that issue," Bush said. "We had a very constructive dialogue about how to achieve that common goal."

Bush said Moscow and Washington share the same policy regarding North Korea.

"We agreed that North Korea should not have a nuclear weapon," Bush said. "And, again, this is an area where we are working closely together as two nations of the five nations that are involved [in talks] with North Korea."

Russia's cooperation with Tehran over the building of a civilian nuclear power plant, which has long been criticized by Washington, was not mentioned.

Much of the final news conference was devoted to the issue of democracy and freedom of the press. Putin was asked to comment on fears that democracy may be under threat in Russia, to which he gave the following response:

"Russia made its choice in favor of democracy fourteen years ago independently, without outside pressure, in our own interest, for the sake of our people, our citizens," Putin said. "This is our final choice, there is no way back and there can be no way back."

Putin dismissed criticism of changes to the way regional governors are to be selected in Russia. He said switching from direct popular elections to governors being appointed by regional legislatures was not undemocratic and he likened the system to the U.S. electoral college.

"I would like to note that regional leaders in Russia will not be appointed by the president," Putin said. "They will be nominated for confirmation by regional parliaments which are elected by direct, secret popular vote. This is essentially the electoral college which is used successfully in the United States on a national scale."

Bush said he believed Putin when he asserted that Russia remains committed to democracy, adding, "When Vladimir says 'yes,' he means yes."

No mention was made at the news conference of the spread of democracy in the CIS -- a theme Bush referred to in his address to the Slovak people earlier yesterday. The issue of Chechnya was also not brought up. Both presidents say they plan to meet several times throughout the year, on the sidelines of international meetings and look forward to continuing their dialogue.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. and Russia released a joint statement in Bratislava saying that they are committed to working together to complete bilateral negotiations for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2005.

For more on the Russia-U.S. summit, see RFE/RL's dedicated Bush-Putin Summit 2005 webpage.