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Analysis: Under The Surface Of Bratislava

The consensus among Russian analysts is that the main achievement of the Russian-American summit in Bratislava on 24 February is that relations between the two countries did not get any worse. U.S. President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin used their good personal relations to keep a lid on bilateral tensions, although both leaders left Slovakia without having changed their previous positions.

As Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov told RTR on 27 February, "the summit confirmed that the two countries can disagree without becoming adversaries." He added that the two countries are seeking to follow the dictum of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who once said that Russia and the United States should move forward in parallel, feeling one another's elbows but not treading on each other's feet.

Most analysts agree that it was important for Russia that Bush included the meeting with Putin in his European tour, the mission of which was the restoration of trans-Atlantic solidarity and the placement of the "partnership with Russia" in that context. Margelov cited Bush's 23 February comment in Brussels that "Russia's future lies within the family of Europe and the trans-Atlantic community."

The Agenda

Although the two leaders had an extensive agenda of international and bilateral matters to discuss, public commentary on both sides of the Atlantic focused on two issues: the state of Russian democracy and Moscow's resistance to the rising democratic tide in the former Soviet Union and its purported desire to restore Russian dominance over the former Soviet republics.

The two presidents spent 40 minutes of their post-summit press conference discussing the first topic. Bush said that he had conveyed to Putin his concern that Russia is moving away from democratic development, while Putin defended his own understanding of democracy and said "the introduction and strengthening of democracy in Russia must not compromise the concept of democracy itself."

The topic of Russian ambitions in the former Soviet republics was even more important. Just hours before his meeting with Putin, Bush -- no doubt to Putin's irritation -- spoke openly about U.S. support of democratic trends in the CIS. Addressing residents of Bratislava, Bush said that "the democratic changes that swept this region over 15 years ago are now reaching Georgia and Ukraine. In 10 days, Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls. And inevitably the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the countr[ies] of democrac[y]," "The New York Times" reported on 25 February.
The focus was on two issues: the state of Russian democracy and Moscow's resistance to the rising democratic tide in the former Soviet Union.

Putin did not make any reaction to this statement during the joint press conference. However, Voice of Russia Director Armen Oganesyan, a member of the influential Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, said on his station on 25 February that "the future of the post-Soviet space remains a crucial issue on the bilateral agenda." Oganesyan said there are clear differences in the approaches of the two countries to the topic of how to develop democracy in the CIS and the matter of the "velvet revolutions." He concluded that it is impossible to reach on consensus on such a complicated matter in the course of one meeting, and no doubt the two men will discuss it again when Bush visits Moscow in May for the 60th anniversary of victory in World War II.

TV-Tsentr political commentator Aleksei Pushkov said on 26 February that Bush's "friendly prodding" about "democracy and freedom" will produce no tangible results and noted that Putin left Bratislava without any particular new obligations. He said that it was unrealistic for Putin's antagonists in the United States to think that the Bratislava meeting might lead to results such as the expulsion of Russia from the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized countries, an easing of the Yukos affair, or the release from prison of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii.

Progress Made

These antagonists, Pushkov said, failed to take into consideration that both presidents wanted the summit to be a success and wanted to make progress on certain, crucial issues, including Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, and North Korea. The two leaders were so satisfied with their talks on these subjects that Putin said at the press conference "we have very small differences on these issues." Pushkov noted that neither man wants nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of Tehran or Pyongyang and both sides want progress on resolving the Middle East situation. No one wants further destabilization in Iraq.

Of course, there are differences. In the case of Iran, Moscow believes Tehran's assurances that it does not plan to develop nuclear weapons and Washington does not. The U.S. position is at least partly motivated by the fact that it has an obligation to protect the security of its Middle Eastern ally, Israel. There are also substantial differences of opinion between the United States and Russia concerning Iraq, Syria, and North Korea, but they are differences in approach rather than goal. In general, Putin's positions today correspond to those of many European leaders who say they share U.S. aims but differ on how to achieve them.

Council for Foreign and Defense Policy President Sergei Karaganov has suggested that the United States is concerned about Russian democracy for both idealistic and pragmatic reasons, RBK reported on 25 February. Pragmatically speaking, Washington worries that retreating from democracy could really weaken Russia and create a dangerous international situation. The Bush administration wants Russia to do everything possible to prevent nuclear materials from getting into the wrong hands. "It is practically never discussed [publicly], but the United States does not want our arsenal to go to another country, such as, for instance, China," Karaganov said.

In addition, Karaganov noted, Russia borders the broader Middle East, which is the largest source of international instability today and the major area of concern to U.S. national interests. International political life today is focused on this region, he said, and it is here that the future development of international order will be determined. By virtue of its geopolitical position, Russia can influence this crucial region in ways that either correspond to or conflict with U.S. interests, he concluded.

Finally, Karaganov said the United States does not want Russia to come under Chinese influence. The West does not view Russia as a future power simply because it does not demonstrate the active internal dynamics that China is manifesting. Washington understands that China has vast potential to compete on international markets, particularly because of the role that Southeast Asia now plays in the world economy. This segment is growing much more rapidly than the global economy as a whole and China has the potential to be the engine of this growth. Therefore, Karaganov said, the United States has been making great efforts to prevent Russia from becoming China's junior partner.

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