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Russia/U.S.: Bush-Putin Meeting May Signify New Cooperation

The 16 June meeting in Slovenia between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin produced an unexpectedly warm atmosphere between the two men, who were meeting for the first time. Bush praised Putin as a remarkable person whom he already trusts. Both spoke of the need for mutual respect. But, as Putin pointed out, a single meeting cannot solve all long-standing differences between the two countries in one stroke.

Ljubljana, 18 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The two presidents, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, sealed their new friendship with a handshake. Being politicians, they smiled as they did so for the benefit of the hundreds of journalists gathered on the lawn of the Slovenian castle where they had just held their first talks.

Not that there was anything strained or forced in the public attitudes of the two leaders. Their first meeting seemed to have gone well in personal terms. Bush in particular went out of his way to praise the Russian president as a remarkable man and leader whom he trusts and with whom he shares many values.

Bush spoke of ending the suspicion of the Cold War era and of forging a partnership between Russia and the United States.

"Russia and America have the opportunity to accomplish much together. We should seize it, and today we have begun."

Bush announced that he and Putin had agreed to exchange visits to Moscow and Washington in the near future, and said they would also launch a detailed and high-level dialogue on the security relationship between their two countries. He then added:

"We also agreed to continue our cooperation and work together toward common solutions on regional issues from the Balkans to Nagorno-Karabakh to Afghanistan. And we discussed our common interest in developing the energy resources of the Caspian basin in a way that benefits all the countries in the region."

In addition, Bush spoke of the need to develop trade and business ties, and urged the creation of a better investment climate in Russia.

Not everything was positive, however. Bush made a mild reference to long-standing bilateral disagreements:

"We did discuss areas where my country has differences with Russia -- over Chechnya. Over media relations. I also expressed my hope that Russia will develop constructive relations with its neighbors -- like Georgia -- that are trying to find their own way in a challenging but hopeful world."

Putin, for his part, said he agreed with Bush's upbeat assessment of the meeting, and added that it had exceeded expectations. But his remarks clearly lacked the euphoria that characterized those of Bush. He said he is counting on a "pragmatic relationship" with the United States. He agreed the two countries are not enemies, and he said they have a special responsibility for maintaining international peace because they possess the bulk of weapons of mass destruction.

Unilateral action, said Putin, can only complicate matters. His remarks on this point were a signal that he has not accepted Bush's plans for a U.S. anti-missile defense system. Russia says the missile plan would breach the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Bush says the ABM treaty is only a Cold-War relic, but Putin again defended it:

"Regarding the problem of the anti-missile defense, Russia's official position is well-known, and I don't think we should waste time explaining it here one more time. We think that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Treaty is the cornerstone of the modern architecture of international security."

Those words suggest that the Slovenia summit was not able to draw Russia and the United States closer on one of the main issues that divides them. Putin acknowledged there are differences between the two sides, and that these cannot be overcome in one short encounter.

On the further expansion of NATO, which is strongly opposed by Moscow but supported by Washington, Putin avoided taking a clear stand. He said there was no need to fire things up on that issue at the moment -- an answer that did not appear to indicate any change in policy. He did say, however, that Russia does not regard NATO as an enemy.

Turning to regional issues, Putin mentioned the Middle East, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, and said that Russian-U.S. differences in these areas were not nearly as big as were their agreements. On Macedonia and the Balkans generally, Putin said the most important goal was to put an end to all forms of extremism and feelings of intolerance. The Russian leader also singled out what he considers a lack of human rights for the large Russian-speaking minority in Latvia.

Despite his reservations on a number of issues, Putin agreed with Bush about the need for a U.S.-Russian partnership in the future. "We assume that there are matters that unite us with our partners in the United States. When we hear about concerns about the future and threats, we agree that these are issues we should think about together."

The Slovenian summit, therefore, could be the first step in a new direction for U.S.-Russian cooperation.