Prague, 25 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- By most accounts Bush and Putin spent an uncomfortable two hours in their private talks in Bratislava.
Bush afterward called the talks “frank” -- a euphemism that in diplomacy often means “difficult.”
The White House officially described the exchange as “wide-ranging,” meaning that many topics were discussed, but also implying the possibility of widely diverging opinions.
The most obvious point of contention appeared to be differences between the two over the concept of democracy.
Bush has made spreading freedom and democracy a cornerstone of his second four-year term in office. He pledged at the start of his European trip this week to press Putin on what many see as Russia’s recent retreat from democratic reforms.
Speaking in Brussels on 21 February, Bush urged European leaders to put democracy at the heart of their relations with Moscow.
"When [President Putin] declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia and they're not turning back, to me that is the most important statement of my private meeting, and it's the most important statement of this public press conference." -- U.S. President George W. Bush
"For Russia to make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. We recognize that reform will not happen overnight. We must always remind Russia, however, that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power, and the rule of law. And the United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia," Bush said.
But on 24 February in Bratislava, Bush appeared to retreat from those strong words. Instead of openly criticizing Russian authorities for clamping down on the free press or dismantling private companies like Yukos, Bush praised Russia for making what he called “tremendous progress.”
Bush told reporters after the talks that Putin had pledged not to roll back democratic reforms -- a pledge that Bush said he believed.
"When [President Putin] declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia and they're not turning back, to me that is the most important statement of my private meeting, and it's the most important statement of this public press conference," Bush said.
It was not clear, however, whether the two men share the same concept of democracy. In comments to reporters, Putin said that enhancing democracy would not come at the expense of weakening the state.
"The implementation of democratic principles and norms should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state or impoverishment of the people. We believe, and I personally believe, that the introduction and strengthening of democracy on Russian soil should not discredit the very concept of democracy, but it should strengthen Russia's statehood and give the people a better life," Putin said.
Russian officials today chose to highlight those areas where the two men agreed. Newspaper reports said these included nuclear security, the fight against terrorism, and economic and trade cooperation. The two pledged to take measures to halt the spread of shoulder-fired missiles that could be used by terrorists to shoot down commercial aircraft.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the summit had been “productive” and would lead to a number of key agreements. Speaking at a meeting in Kazakhstan, Lavrov did not give specifics but said 20 concrete directives had been issued.
"The summit was one of the most productive meetings for working out concrete decisions. The presidents adopted about 20 concrete directives, outlining timetables and those responsible for their implementation," Lavrov said.
The two leaders also apparently reached agreement on the sensitive issue of North Korea and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programs. Both men affirmed that neither country should be permitted to possess a nuclear bomb.
There was no public mention, however, about Russia’s plans to sell antiaircraft missiles to Syria -- a move that both the United States and Israel oppose. Newspaper reports said Bush raised the issue in his private talks with Putin -- though it wasn’t known how Putin responded.
(Agencies/"The New York Times"/"The Wall Street Journal Europe")