- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

Russian President Vladimir Putin, faced with a barrage of questions about democracy in his country, grew visibly impatient that the subject dominated his rare press conference with President Bush yesterday.

Mr. Putin made clear his opinion that Washington’s concerns about his governing style have received too much attention.

“When we discuss these issues absolutely frankly, we — and I in particular — do not think that this has to be pushed to the foreground, that new problems should be created from nothing,” Mr. Putin said after a summit with Mr. Bush in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.

“And I do not think that we should jeopardize the Russian-American relationship, because we are interested in the development of this relationship,” he said.

Mr. Putin’s use of “frankly” and Mr. Bush’s description of their meeting as “an open and candid exchange of views and positions” — meaning a tense and argumentative discussion — were a significant departure from the language of their first meeting four years ago, diplomats and analysts said.

The difference, they said, is that in the summer of 2001, the Bush administration did not have the focus on spreading freedom and democracy around the world it has now. In addition, Mr. Putin had not taken some of the measures that officials in Washington describe as “backsliding of democracy.”

Both U.S. and Russian officials conceded yesterday that neither leader was persuaded by the merits of the other’s arguments to rethink his view. They also suggested that things are not likely to change anytime soon.

“Democracies have certain things in common,” Mr. Bush said. “They have a rule of law, and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition.”

Mr. Putin countered: “The principles of democracy should be adequate to the current status of the development of Russia, to our history and our traditions.”

Democracy “is not the possibility to do anything you want; it is not the possibility for anyone to rob your own people,” he said in an apparent reference to former officials and business people who have amassed considerable wealth since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In another expression of impatience with his critics, Mr. Putin accused them of not having “full knowledge and, consequently, full understanding of what is taking place in the Russian Federation.”

He brought up the U.S. criticism of his decision to end the direct election of regional governors and allow instead the regions’ legislatures to approve or reject candidates presented by Moscow.

The regional parliaments, he said, “are elected through secret ballot by all the citizens. This is, in essence, a system of the Electoral College that is used on the national level in the United States, and it’s not considered undemocratic.”

U.S. officials acknowledged the Russians’ lack of comfort when democracy issues are raised, but they said those matters will be a permanent part of the U.S.-Russian agenda in the future.

“The president was very clear that those things are not going away, whether the Russians like it or not,” one official said.

He suggested that Washington’s dialogue with Moscow will somewhat resemble that with Beijing in form — cooperating on various issues but also discussing democracy and human rights, despite the displeasure of the other side.

Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation, who was in Russia earlier this month, said officials there were “uncomfortable” talking about democracy.

“We have a challenge of balancing interests. We are trying to balance a bunch of foreign policy and security issues on the agenda with Bush’s overarching theme of spreading freedom during his second term,” Mr. Cohen said.

“We have to use democracy as a foreign policy tool in areas that represent a threat to us, like Saudi, Syria, Iran and Pakistan,” he said.

In Moscow yesterday, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov — who was fired last year — sharply criticized Mr. Putin’s record on democracy and said he might run for president in 2008 as a candidate for an opposition united front of “democratic forces.”

Democratic values — division of power, independent judiciary and press, a market economy and free business climate — must be the basis of Russia’s development, Mr. Kasyanov told reporters on the anniversary of his firing.

“I have reached the view that not one of these values is being implemented or respected. … The country is on the wrong track,” Reuters news agency quoted Mr. Kasyanov as saying.


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