BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin downplayed their differences over the Kremlin’s crackdown on Russia’s free press and businesses, although there was sharper disagreement behind the scenes at yesterday’s U.S.-Russia summit here.
Mr. Bush, who focused his second inaugural address on spreading liberty worldwide and who had been harshly critical in recent weeks of Moscow on democratic reform, managed to mute such criticism in a joint press conference with Mr. Putin after their nearly three-hour summit.
“Democracies have certain things in common: They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition,” Mr. Bush said in Bratislava Castle. “I was able to share my concerns about Russia’s commitment in fulfilling these universal principles. I did so in a constructive and friendly way.”
However, Mr. Bush was more blunt in private.
One European official said the president confided to him that “Putin is a man loving strong-hand more than democratic institutions. Putin still doesn’t understand something like sharing power.”
Still, Mr. Putin said at the press conference that he was at least partially receptive to Mr. Bush’s concerns.
“Some of his ideas could be taken into account in my work, and I will pay due attention to them, that’s for sure,” he said. “Some other ideas, I will not comment on.”
But for the most part, Mr. Putin issued a vigorous defense of his handling of democracy in Russia.
“Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy — fourteen years ago,” he said. “This is our final choice, and we have no way back.
“There can be no return to what we used to have before,” he added. “Any kind of turn toward totalitarianism for Russia would be impossible, due to the condition of the Russian society.”
Mr. Bush appeared to accept this comment at face value.
“He declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia, and they’re not turning back,” the president said. “To me, that is the most important statement of my private meeting, and it’s the most important statement of this public press conference.”
But Mr. Bush spoke much more grandly at his inaugural address, saying, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
He added: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors.”
The president seemed to apply such a sweeping stance to Russia in recent months.
In his speech earlier this week in Brussels, he said, “The United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia.”
During one of the 2004 presidential debates, Mr. Bush said Mr. Putin was “sending a signal to the Western world and United States that perhaps he doesn’t believe in checks and balances, and I told him that.”
However, at yesterday’s press conference, Mr. Putin cautioned that pure democracy could wreak havoc on Russian society.
“The implementation of the principles and norms of democracy should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people,” he said. “Democracy is not anarchy.
“It is not a possibility to do anything you want,” he added. “Democracy is, among other things and first and foremost, the possibility to democratically make democratic laws and the capability of the state to enforce those laws.”
Seeking common ground, Mr. Bush touted an agreement with Russia to enhance control of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, also known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), although the two parties disagreed over whether the new accord applies to Moscow’s plan to sell such weapons to Syria.
The agreement was signed yesterday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
“We agreed upon new efforts to fight the war on terror, to combat MANPADS,” Mr. Bush said, turning to his Russian counterpart. “And I want to thank you for that.”
Mr. Putin also hailed what he called the “arrangement on cooperation in enhancing control over MANPADS. It is important to neutralize the attempts to proliferate weapons of mass destruction.”
But a senior administration official later said the two leaders disagreed over whether the new agreement would prevent Moscow from going ahead with a contemplated sale of shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Mr. Bush strongly opposes such a sale.
“We would wish that the Russians would reconsider their position on the sale of those weapons,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The Russians believe that this falls outside the context of the MANPADS agreement, because they don’t believe that the system that they’re considering selling is a MANPAD system.”
“Our point is that any sale of these types of systems — surface-to-air defense systems — in the current context is destabilizing,” the official added. “We will be in close discussion with the Russians on this issue. We have had several exchanges on that. I am not sure that the decision to sell the weapons is final.”
Before the press conference, the two leaders privately discussed ways to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Russia is building a nuclear-power plant in Iran known as Bushehr, raising concerns in Washington that the Iranians will use the spent fuel to make nuclear weapons.
But yesterday, the Bush administration appeared to accept Russian assurances that this would not happen.
“Russia has made it clear that it will not sell or provide any nuclear fuel to Bushehr absent, one, an agreement with the Iranians that all fuel will be supplied by Russia and [two], all spent fuel will be returned to Russia for final disposal,” the senior official said.
“We think that is an appropriate way to deal with this issue,” the official added.
Before the summit with Mr. Putin, the president gave a speech to tens of thousands of cheering Slovaks in Bratislava’s main Hviezdoslavovo Square.
He likened the democratization of Iraq, which held its first free elections in 50 years last month, to the 1989 Velvet Revolution protests that led to the downfall of communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia, which separated into two countries in 1993.
“As you watched jubilant Iraqis dancing in the streets last month, holding up ink-stained fingers, you remembered Velvet days,” Mr. Bush said. “For the Iraqi people, this is their 1989, and they will always remember who stood with them in their quest for freedom.”
Warming to his theme, the president ticked off a list of countries where democracy triumphed over tyranny.
“In recent times, we have witnessed landmark events in the history of liberty: A Rose Revolution in Georgia, an Orange Revolution in Ukraine and now, a Purple Revolution in Iraq,” he said.
Mindful of setbacks in his quest to establish a working democracy in Iraq, Mr. Bush counseled patience.
“It took almost a decade after the Velvet Revolution for democracy to fully take root in this country,” he said. “And the democratic revolutions that swept this region over 15 years ago are now reaching Georgia and Ukraine.
“In 10 days, Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls,” he added. “And inevitably, the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the country of democracies.”
After spending three days in Western Europe, which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called “old Europe” because of its opposition to the Iraq war, Mr. Bush appeared happy to be in “new Europe,” or the former Soviet bloc nations that supported Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Slovaks know the horror of tyranny,” he said.