- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Russia will not back down on its democratic record or on its dealings with Syria and Iran when President Vladimir Putin meets President Bush at a summit tomorrow, Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov said in an interview.

The Russian diplomat said the meeting in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava should produce concrete results, but that any attempt to “corner” Russia over political liberties and press freedoms would be “counterproductive and doomed to failure.”

“Frankly, I regret that Russia time and again has become the target of harsh criticism for the so-called ‘retreat’ from democracy,” Mr. Ushakov said. “Due to interpretations by [the] U.S. media and think-tank community of events in Russia, the whole environment before Bratislava does not seem favorable. …

“Unfortunately, this prejudice influences public opinion and — in some degree — the official position,” he added.

Mr. Ushakov answered a series of written questions and met with editors and reporters of The Washington Times at the Russian Embassy in Washington this week.



He said Russia had been in close contact with the Bush administration on both Iran and Syria, and that the sides shared strong opposition to weapons proliferation in the Middle East.

But he said Moscow was determined to go ahead with a civilian nuclear power plant it is building for Iran and is exploring the sale of defensive missiles to Syria, two deals questioned by Bush administration officials.

With Syria under intense international scrutiny for its military domination of Lebanon after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, “we understand this is a burning issue for everybody,” Mr. Ushakov said.

“But according to international law, we are doing nothing wrong” in exploring a missile sale to Damascus, he said. He added that the United States and Israel are being kept abreast of Russia’s plans.

The ambassador said Western press reports overplayed remarks last week in which Mr. Putin played down concerns about Iran’s nuclear programs. He said Moscow will cooperate with Tehran so long as it abides by international and bilateral guarantees not to divert the civilian nuclear project to military uses.

Presidents Bush and Putin have forged a strong personal bond since the September 11 attacks, but Mr. Bush struck a sharp tone on Russia’s democratic shortcomings in an address on Monday in Brussels.

“For Russia to make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law,” Mr. Bush said.

While “we recognize that reform will not happen overnight,” Mr. Bush added, “the United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia.”

Mr. Putin responded forcefully yesterday in an interview with the Slovak press, saying the principles and institutions of democracy “must be adapted to the realities of Russian life today, to our traditions and our history.”

“We will do this ourselves,” he said in a transcript released by the Kremlin. “We are against the use of such an issue as an instrument for achieving foreign-policy aims.”

Despite the sharp tone of the remarks, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the international relations committee of Russia’s legislature, the State Duma, predicted that security concerns such as terrorism would trump human rights issues in Bratislava.

“Moscow and Washington have a similar understanding of the acute new threats and the need to find a firm answer to challenges to the civilization,” he said in reply to written questions submitted by The Washington Times. “In some ways, they are closer than America is with its traditional allies.”

The Russian ambassador said political pressure had forced Mr. Bush to speak out about Russia’s political practices. But he noted that, privately, past Bush-Putin summits have moved beyond combative rhetoric to focus on concrete achievements and joint cooperation.

“They discuss real things,” he said. “Publicly, yes, the administration has to respond to the things people are saying, but when they sit around the table, the talk is about things like trade relations or cooperating in the war on terror.”

Mr. Kosachev said Mr. Bush should reject U.S. advocates of what he called a “cold peace” with Russia.

“We hope that [Mr. Bush] will again show to everyone that he is a politician who makes his decisions independently, who tries to have an independent opinion on all issues, and who can get ‘a sense of his partner’s soul.’”

Mr. Ushakov made no apologies for recent Kremlin moves to clip the power of regional governors or a campaign against the owner of Yukos, which resulted in the virtual state seizure of the giant oil company while leading Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky sits in a jail cell on tax charges.

The widely criticized Yukos prosecution is not a sign that “Russia is departing from liberal economic policies,” Mr. Ushakov said.

“The Russian state has every right to defend its economic interests,” he said. “The Americans taught us the simple logic that taxes should always be paid and a punishment for nonpayment is inevitable.”

Mr. Ushakov said Russia welcomed the Bratislava summit as the first extended meeting between the two leaders in more than a year.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush met on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., last summer, and at November’s Asia-Pacific leaders’ summit in Chile. But the meetings were tightly confined, and the two spent much of the Chilean meeting talking about Mr. Bush’s re-election victory and joking with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell over his impending departure.

Leading agenda items in Bratislava are certain to include U.S. support for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, Iraq, energy cooperation and the global war on terrorism, where intelligence agencies from the two sides have forged a close, if largely unseen, relationship since September 11.

Mr. Kosachev said Mr. Putin will have his own grievances about certain U.S. policies.

“As America is concerned about the fate of democracy in Russia, we are also concerned about the expansion of NATO closer to Russia’s borders and about proactive attempts to push Russia from the post-Soviet space,” he said.

It is in Russia’s interest to have stable, prosperous democracies on its borders but he said, the West “could not resist the temptation to receive an economic, political and moral ‘contribution’ from the collapsed empire without concluding any fair and legal international agreements.”

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