Bush, Putin find common ground

The leaders reached agreement over 'loose nukes' and nonproliferation.

President Bush and Russian leader Vladimir Putin set a positive agenda of cooperation on security, terrorism, and nonproliferation in their summit Thursday, choosing to play down disagreements and clouds over Russia's democratic process.

During a longer-than-planned meeting in the Slovak capital at the end of Mr. Bush's week-long European trip, the two leaders discussed the issues that have prompted a US review of relations with Russia. They also announced decisions to enhance cooperation on securing nuclear materials and to pursue a range of energy-sector developments.

Both leaders expressed unwavering confidence in their personal relationship at a press conference following their meetings. Bush, who had come under pressure to probe recent decisions in Russia that are seen as restricting democratic rights, said Mr. Putin's "most important statement" was "when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia, and that there will be 'no turning back.' " Bush said he has come to know the Russian leader, who bluntly opposed the US-led war in Iraq, as a man of his word, so he said he is has confidence when he says Russia is incontrovertibly on the road of democracy.

That is unlikely to satisfy critics, including in the US Congress, who want concrete steps to nudge Russia back from its retreat from democracy. But Bush appeared to nix one such step some critics have recommended when he said he would seek to accelerate Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, a move Putin dearly wants to enhance Russia's membership in the international community.

Referring to mounting criticism in the West of recent decisions seen limiting press freedoms and clouding the rule of law, Putin said he suspects some foreigners "do not have a full understanding of what is happening in the Russian federation." But he added that the advent of democracy should not come in such a way that it is "accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people."

The two presidents agreed to take cooperative steps to reduce the threat of so-called "loose nukes": nuclear materials in this case at Russian facilities that have been poorly guarded and risk falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

The agreement accelerates previously agreed deadlines for securing Russian nuclear facilities. The new accord calls for them to be secured by 2008 - when both presidents are to leave office - four years earlier than called for in the previous agreement.

The deal also establishes a joint program to prevent highly enriched uranium from falling into the wrong hands and being used to develop weapons.

In a separate agreement signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the two countries pledged cooperation to reduce the accessibility of shoulder-fired missiles that are capable of hitting and bringing down airliners and other aircraft. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the foreign minister's name.]

The agreements, while significant, were seen by some as an effort by the White House in particular to put a positive light on a difficult summit. The meeting has widely been portrayed as pitting Mr. Bush's new focus on spreading democracy against Mr. Putin's rollback of democratic reforms.

"This is really a keystone of post-cold-war relations," says James Dobbins, a defense expert at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. The world is better off, he says, if more is done to safeguard the materials, accelerate development of peaceful uses, and find Russia's technologists other jobs "so they aren't seduced into the wrong work for the wrong people."

The agreement on securing Russian nuclear facilities could deflate criticism, primarily from Democrats in the US, that the administration is doing too little to address the loose-nuke threat.

Earlier in the day, President Bush made the most public and one of the more impassioned interventions of his European trip when he spoke to hundreds of people jammed into a public square in the Slovak capital.

With a frigid wind whipping up a light snow, Bush reminded the assembled audience - notable because it was largely Slovaks who came on their own to see the American president - that other peoples were now carrying out democratic revolutions as they had over a decade ago.

Bush said the "purple revolution" of Iraq (with citizens proudly displaying ink-stained fingers after voting) followed a path marked by the Velvet Revolution of the Czechs and Slovaks, the Rose Revolution of the Georgia, and December's Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Bush's words were repeatedly punctuated by happy applause, but he received the loudest cheer when he said his government is "working to make it easier for Slovaks to travel to the United States of America."

A few protesters kept at a distance could also be heard shouting things like "Go Home!" during the president's speech.

But most Slovaks in the square happily waved the tiny Slovak and American flags that were handed out. "Those protesters don't represent the Slovaks," said one man, "but they have a right to be here. It's one of the rights the Americans helped us establish here," he adds. "So in a way they went with Bush's excellent speech instead of damaging it."

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