- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG — President Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, yesterday agreed in principle on contentious issues such as the Middle East, Iran and North Korea, but the leaders failed to clinch a key trade deal and clashed over democracy, with Mr. Putin declaring he does not want “the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq.”

During a 30-minute press conference, notable for the chilly body language between the two presidents, the leaders acknowledged that they do not see eye to eye on a host of issues, but said they agreed that Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons and urged all sides in the escalating Middle East crisis to pull back from war.

“I can repeat, it is not in Russia’s national interest to see a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, especially in such an explosive region as the Middle East,” said Mr. Putin, who remains steadfast in opposing U.N. sanctions against Iran for its unchecked nuclear ambitions.

The topic is so contentious between the two that Mr. Bush did not even bring it up, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said.

But seeking to highlight their common ground before the opening of the Group of Eight summit, Mr. Bush said that he and Mr. Putin “agree that we’ve got to work together to send a common message” to the leaders of Iran and North Korea, both of whom are seeking to develop nuclear weapons, despite international opposition.

“One thing is for certain, that if the Iranians see that the United States and Russia are working together on this issue, they’ll understand the seriousness of our intent,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush was emphatic in expressing the U.S. stance on the escalation of violence in the Middle East, pointing a finger directly at Syria for its support of Hezbollah.

“The best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms and to stop attacking. And, therefore, I call upon Syria to exert influence over Hezbollah,” Mr. Bush said.

As the G-8 summit got under way, the United States pressed for approval of a statement identifying Hezbollah as the main antagonist in the Middle East flare-up, while also seeking to shore up Lebanon, which has been repeatedly struck by Israeli missiles.

Israel launched its offensive after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the Israel-Lebanon border and captured two Israeli soldiers on Wednesday. Since then, Israel has bombarded Lebanon’s airport and main roads while Hezbollah, backed by both Syria and Iran, has launched hundreds of rockets into Israel.

Mr. Putin said early today that significant efforts were needed to restore peace.

“However complicated the questions are, maximum efforts must be applied to resolve the situation in a peaceful way, and I think all efforts have not been exhausted,” he said.

But Mr. Putin said he had the impression that Israel was “pursuing wider goals” than just the return of its soldiers. He did not elaborate.

During yesterday’s press conference, Mr. Putin also took a swipe at Mr. Bush, who repeatedly has lectured the Russian president for failing to press forward with democratic reforms.

Mr. Bush said he had talked with Mr. Putin during a two-hour private meeting “about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq, where there’s a free press and free religion, and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same thing.”

Mr. Putin, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has criticized efforts to establish democracy there, quickly replied: “We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I can tell you quite honestly.”

“Just wait,” Mr. Bush said with a tight smile and reddening face after Mr. Putin’s remarks were translated into English.

“We know for sure that we cannot strengthen our nation without developing democratic institutions. But, certainly, we will do this by ourselves,” Mr. Putin added.

He also said that Russia would not take part “in any crusades, in any holy alliances” — a remark that appeared to be intended to sooth Arab allies. Mr. Hadley said he did not understand the comment.

Despite the cool relationship between the leaders, each said they share the same philosophies and goals.

“We don’t always agree with each other, but nevertheless, it’s important for leaders to be able to share philosophy, whether it be the philosophy of government or the philosophy of governing,” Mr. Bush said.

While they announced a series of agreements — from more cooperation in fighting acts of nuclear terrorism and in storing spent nuclear waste to setting up a U.S.-Russia foundation to help modernize Russia’s economy — talks broke down on Russia’s bid to gain U.S. support to join the World Trade Organization.

Mr. Bush said U.S. negotiators think Russia needed to offer more in trade concessions to satisfy Congress. He said both sides would continue talks, and a top negotiator said an agreement could be reached within three months.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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