Liberty, and other prickly themes

After talks with Putin, Bush arrived in Georgia Monday to praise that country's young democracy.

From attending the Moscow parade commemorating the end of World War II 60 years ago to visiting the young democracy of Georgia, President Bush's theme on his European trip was clear: liberty.

But staying on message has proved more difficult than the White House anticipated.

Mr. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin have sparred over democracy's reach - from historic issues like the Soviet Union's occupation of the former Soviet republics, which Bush condemned last week, to concerns over setbacks to Russian democracy under Mr. Putin.

The two leaders, who are self-described friends, labored to stay focused on the celebration of freedom's victory over a common enemy. With bilateral talks Sunday, and Monday's salute to victory over fascism, the two leaders tried to demonstrate how working even broadly from the same book of principles makes them potentially more effective.

Bush suggested, for example, that terrorism is the kind of common enemy that the two countries can address today with the determination and cooperation that the Allies deployed against fascism in the past.

Yet while Bush and Mr. Putin addressed prickly topics like democracy's spread through Eastern Europe as well as international cooperation on the Middle East and nonproliferation, a creeping sense of diverging visions also rattled a relationship built on post-Cold War commonality throughout the Bush administration.

After talks Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the two leaders have developed a relationship that is "absolutely straightforward. They say what they think, they say what they mean, and then they act on it."

That said, the Moscow visit remained largely symbolic, with some US officials suggesting that more substantive actions on issues facing the two countries could wait until future meetings. Bush and Putin are scheduled to meet in Britain in June, at a summit of the G-8 group of developed countries, and again at a G-8 summit set for Russia in 2006.

Still, representatives of the so-called "quartet" of the US, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations were to meet in Moscow Monday to coordinate an approach to Israel's planned pullout from Gaza this summer.

For some foreign dignitaries attending Monday's parade, Bush's presence was a show of international unity and suggests an overarching desire to move global freedom forward.

During the various events of the day, "Mr. Bush sat right beside Mr. Putin, and we [the western WW II allies of the USSR] were all in the front row. It was a significant statement of how we all feel, that we are all in this together," says Canada's Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, Canada's symbolic head of state.

As the leaders gathered for the Red Square tribune Monday morning, Putin was flanked by Bush, Chinese President Hu Jintao, and French President Jacques Chirac.

Observers say that Putin wanted to remind the world of Russia's place on the right side of history and to pump up Russia's international status, which is now coming increasingly under attack. "I know that Putin cares very much about this anniversary, and that's why he made it a big celebration, by inviting the world to Moscow," Ms. Clarkson says.

But some analysts warn that Bush may have made a mistake attending a celebration that would also be attended by former Soviet republic leaders and current leaders, like Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who are well-received in Moscow but disdained in Washington as undemocratic.

"For Bush to be together with Lukashenko and other international outcasts is a mistake the White House should have avoided," says Anders Aslund, a US-Russia relations expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Noting that Russia is the only country that has retrenched from "partly free" to "not free" in the most recent listing of world democracies by Freedom House, Mr. Aslund adds, "Why should Bush be friendly with the only newborn dictator in the world?"

Aslund says the White House realized "too late" that the trip contained the seeds of a diplomatic disaster, and so belatedly added the bookends of stops in the Baltic states and in Georgia. But, he says, that only set up the inevitable sparring between Bush and Putin over whether or not the Soviet Union "occupied" the Baltic states and other parts of Eastern Europe.

"Now you have this sharp aggravation over language usage concerning 60 years ago," he says. "It draws attention to what many people have been saying for some time is the problem underlying this friendship: that Putin is an authoritarian and Bush is a democrat."

On Saturday in Latvia, Bush described the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states as "one of the greatest wrongs in history." He also praised the Baltic states as models of democratic reform. In Georgia, Bush was to meet with President Mikhael Saakashvili - who boycotted the Red Square event over an ongoing dispute with Russia about removing Soviet-era bases.

At Monday's celebration, Putin called World War II's outcome "the victory of good over evil" - a sentiment Bush could certainly endorse. But the two former super-enemies have a growing set of issues causing mutual suspicions, some analysts say.

"Bush is going to try to keep nudging Putin's Russia back to the right road" of democratization and broader rights, says William Kincade, an expert in US-Russia security relations at American university in Washington, "but it's looking pretty much like a lost cause."

Fred Weir contributed from Moscow.

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