- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2007

PRAGUE — President Bush yesterday escalated the war of words with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that the Kremlin’s leader has “derailed” democracy and moved his former communist nation away from reforms that once promised freedom for its citizens.

The president, delivering a speech in the very room where the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991, also chastised Mr. Putin for suggesting that a planned U.S. missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe is intended to target Moscow.

In his 30-minute speech, which celebrated the surge of global democracy and pointedly criticized nations where civil liberties are denied or limited, Mr. Bush stoked a fiery dispute with the Russian leader, two days before the two were set to meet at the Group of Eight summit in Germany.

“In Russia, reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development,” the president said, calling U.S.-Russia relations “complex.”

Now grouping Russia with the much more recalcitrant China, Mr. Bush said: “In the areas where we share mutual interests, we work together. In other areas, we have strong disagreements.”

But in a speech filled with reminders of the Cold War, praise for Soviet dissidents and declarations of the moral superiority of freedom and liberty over tyranny, Mr. Bush said the U.S. continues its friendship with both nations.

“As our relationships with South Korea and Taiwan during the Cold War prove, America can maintain a friendship and push a nation toward democracy at the same time,” he said.

Mr. Putin has grown increasingly combative about U.S. plans to install a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe — with a radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 missiles spread over four military bases in Poland, which borders Russia.

He has accused the United States of stoking a new Cold War, threatened to target Europe with missiles if the U.S. shield is installed and, on Monday, claimed that he is the world’s last remaining “pure” democratic leader, comparing himself to India’s nonviolent independence hero Mahatma Gandhi.

“If the U.S. nuclear potential extends across the European territory, we will get new targets in Europe,” the Russian leader said this week.

Meanwhile in Poland, where Mr. Bush will stop after the G-8 meeting, Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said yesterday that the Russian president’s rhetoric was worse than that of any recent Russian or Soviet leader. He had to go back to the 1950s to find a comparison.

The threatening language used by Mr. Putin “was not used by Boris Yeltsin or Mikhail Gorbachev … or even by [Leonid] Brezhnev, as far as I remember, but [Nikita] Khrushchev certainly used the same type of language,” Mr. Kaczynski said.

Mr. Khrushchev took over as leader of the Soviet Union when Josef Stalin died in 1953 and led the U.S.S.R. at the height of the Cold War, including the Cuban missile crisis and his threat to the West: “We will bury you.”

Mr. Bush said yesterday that while the U.S. and Russia may disagree over the missile shield, there is no chance of returning to the decades-long hostility of the Cold War era.

“The Cold War is over. It ended. The people of the Czech Republic don’t have to choose between being a friend to the United States or a friend with Russia. You can be both,” the president said after a meetings at the Czernin Palace with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and President Vaclav Klaus.

At the G-8, where Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin will meet for the first time since the public spat erupted, the president said: “My message will be, Vladimir — I call him Vladimir — that you shouldn’t fear a missile-defense system. As a matter of fact, why don’t you cooperate with us on a missile-defense system? Why don’t you participate with the United States?”

The two Czech leaders expressed support for the missile shield.

“We agree with President Bush on that,” Mr. Klaus said, urging Mr. Bush to “make maximum efforts to explain these issues to Russia and President Putin.” Said Mr. Topolanek: “The point is not only to site the facility in the Czech Republic, but this is about the joint will for defense of freedom. … That’s why we want to be involved.”

Mr. Bush delivered his speech at a conference of current and former dissidents that was hosted by Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who became a top Israeli government official, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who led the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended communism in the former Czechoslovakia.

Quoting another Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov, who was held in internal exile after he opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Mr. Bush warned that “a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.”

The jab was directed at Mr. Putin as Mr. Bush continued to instruct the Russian that democracies on his borders are no threat to his nation.

While the president offered qualified praise for allies with poor records on democracy, naming Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China, he lashed out at what he called “some of the world’s worst dictatorships,” including Belarus, Burma, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Praising dissidents for standing up to oppression and tyranny, Mr. Bush noted that he “pledged America to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

“Some have said that qualifies me as a dissident president. If standing for liberty in the world makes me a dissident, then I’ll wear the title with pride,” he said to applause.

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