Bush chose the highly public forum of the news conference to emphasize his personal trust in Putin.
But democracy activists from all over Eastern Europe, who had front-row seats at this week's events in the Slovak capital, say they are pleased with the way Bush conducted himself. A group of 21 of these activists, representing 13 countries -- including Georgia, Serbia, Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine met privately with Bush at the White House's request on 23 February, prior to yesterday's summit.
The man who helped organize the meeting is Pavol Demes, head of the Slovak branch of the U.S. German Marshall Fund. He told RFE/RL that Bush's decision to meet some of the leading democracy advocates of the region before his speech on one of Bratislava's main squares and before his meeting with Putin was highly symbolic.
Demes said the decision was evidence of Bush's genuine commitment to supporting the struggle for freedom in the region. He said the list of invitees also demonstrates that the current U.S. president understands this struggle for freedom in broad historical terms.
The activists ranged in age from 87 to 31 years old. Some fought against the Nazis, while others, like Giga Bokeria of Georgia -- one of the key figures behind the youth Kmara movement -- triumphed in their fight against authoritarianism only very recently. Others, like Belarus's Zhanna Litvina, are still fighting.
Demes explained, saying: "[Bush] wanted to meet with people who represent, through their lives, some of the values which he is trying to articulate and explain. And I think that this idea shows that the struggle for democracy in Europe is not something which is very recent and is [only] taking place in a country like Belarus and Ukraine and Moldova, but that the struggle for democracy is an on-going effort from the past and will continue in the future."
Demes said that Bush told participants in the meeting that for him, personally, the spreading of freedom and democracy across the world is his foremost priority.
Demes said the rules of diplomacy dictated Bush's cordial tone at the news conference with Putin yesterday but that he was convinced of the U.S. president's commitment to upholding democracy.
"In a nutshell, I am not disappointed at all. I think that the meeting of President Bush with democracy activists from 13 countries before [the summit], his speech on the square, then the fact that he spoke about issues of democracy in a friendly and constructive manner -- as he said -- I think we need to see all these three points as one package," Demes said. "And President Bush, in both his Inaugural Address and his State of the Union address, mentioned that besides the war or terrorism, spreading democracy and democracy assistance will form a pillar of his foreign policy. I think that this is very good news for countries of Central and Eastern Europe and, I would say, beyond."
Andrei Sannikov, the international coordinator of Belarus's Charter 97 democracy movement (inspired by the communist-era Charter 77 movement in the former Czechoslovakia), took part in the Bratislava conference of democracy activists. He did not meet Bush personally but also praised the U.S. president's efforts on behalf of those struggling to bring democracy to their own countries.
The fact the geopolitics sometimes overshadows concern for human rights is a sad reality, he said -- which concerns both Europe and America.
"This doesn't only concern America. It also concerns certain European states," Sannikov said. "Yes, we encounter this. It's a fact of life. We understand that -- especially in relation to Russia --which is rich in natural resources, 'realpolitik' often takes precedence. But this always leads to negative consequences. And you cannot build long-term relations on this."
Sannikov said he believes Bush understands this, and said he is glad that the U.S. president, since he began his second term in office, has publicly put democracy and freedom at the top of his agenda. Sannikov said this gives Belarusians and others who have yet to live in free societies hope. And, he said, it gives them a powerful argument, should America and others seek to renege on their promise.
"Since President Bush and other politicians in the United States and European countries declare the inviolable principle of democracy and freedom, we address ourselves to them and say: 'These are your words. Please respect what you declare,'" Sannikov said.
Sannikov said the Bratislava gathering of democracy activists reinvigorated participants, who especially cheered the recent successes of their colleagues in Ukraine and Georgia.
For more on the Russia-U.S. summit, see RFE/RL's dedicated Bush-Putin Summit 2005 webpage.