- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

President Bush said yesterday that he will not allow anti-democratic developments in Russia and Moscow’s interference in the Ukrainian election to damage his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Obviously, we have some disagreements … but this is a vital and important relationship,” Mr. Bush said at a White House press conference.

“Vladimir Putin and I have got a good personal relationship,” he said, adding, “I intend to keep it that way. It’s important for Russia and the United States to have the kind of relationship where, if we disagree with decisions, we can do so in a friendly and positive way.”

Mr. Bush cited his criticism of Mr. Putin’s move earlier this year to appoint regional governors instead of allowing the voters to elect them directly. He noted that Mr. Putin disagreed with the war in Iraq.

“I’ll continue to express my belief that … balanced government, the sharing of power amongst [branches of] government will lead to stability in Russia,” Mr. Bush said.

U.S. and Russian officials said later that the two leaders will meet in Slovakia on Feb. 24 during Mr. Bush’s European trip aimed at improving relations with traditional allies.

The Bush administration has warned against government control over the Russian media — which helped Mr. Putin win re-election this year — and Moscow’s treatment of the business community, but such criticism has been restrained.

Asked yesterday about the sale of the Russian oil giant Yukos’ main production unit to a mystery buyer in a forced auction on Sunday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher chose his words carefully.

“We think the case has eroded Russia’s reputation as a place to do business and eroded confidence in Russia’s legal and judicial institutions,” Mr. Boucher said.

“We’ve looked for a solution to the Yukos issue that might enforce tax laws, but avoid outcomes that harm investors, creditors and employees,” he added. “We don’t believe the auction was a step in that direction.”

In the case of the Nov. 21 Ukrainian runoff election, in which the declared victory of the pro-Russian candidate was overturned by the Supreme Court because of massive fraud, U.S. administration officials said being on opposite sides with Moscow will not affect the overall relationship.

“We have not tried to make this an issue in our bilateral relationship, and we don’t see it as part of it,” one senior official said.

The policy reflects the views of Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state-designate, who advocated a hands-off approach to Russia’s internal affairs in articles and interviews long before moving to the West Wing.

“Let’s get out of Russian domestic politics,” she said in a 2000 interview. “Let’s recognize the good things that are happening in Russia, and let’s get back to the state-to-state great-power relationship in which we deal with the issues.”

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