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Before Bratislava

By Yuri Ushakov
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page A15

The fact that President Bush will meet President Vladimir Putin during his first overseas trip so soon after Bush's inauguration illustrates the importance of our relationship. The meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, could be as significant as their first encounter four years ago in Slovenia.

Russia and the United States are obliged to work together, if for no other reason than their possession of tremendous nuclear arsenals, a legacy of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Fortunately, we no longer threaten one another, but our unique status brings with it unique responsibility for concerted efforts in the nuclear field, including possible cooperation and exchanges of information to avoid misunderstandings.

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We also share goals -- for example, in the energy sphere. Despite some assertions to the contrary, Russia welcomes know-how and investment to expand its energy production. This is increasingly important to U.S. and world energy markets hungry for more energy at acceptable prices.

But our success as partners cannot be taken for granted. We cannot ignore attempts in both Russia and the United States to question our collaboration. To some extent this is inevitable -- the two countries are both major states, and despite many shared interests, we have different histories, different contemporary circumstances and different perceptions. Even some of our interests differ. But emphasizing our differences, ignoring our similarities and devaluing what we have achieved pushes us apart rather than pulling us together.

Let me remind you that Russia has viewed some U.S. approaches as troubling, especially on Iraq. There was widespread opposition to U.S. actions in this regard, which our governments have agreed not to put in the forefront. It is an open secret that many in Russia are expressing serious concern about American intentions in the post-Soviet space, including in Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Notwithstanding these pressures, Putin and the Russian leadership are committed to a close relationship with the United States. Moreover, Russia recognizes considerable promise and prospects for such a relationship.

In the United States, particular attention has focused on Russian democracy. Putin has stated more than once that Russia fully adheres to democratic principles. More broadly, Russians have chosen the path of freedom; their lives are fundamentally different today from what they were 15 years ago. While fully mindful of how they have suffered since the Soviet collapse, most Russian people do not want to turn back.

Today Russia faces the very challenging task of strengthening law and order, building democratic institutions and civil society and addressing grave social problems. The road to attaining these goals is a bumpy one. At the same time we are taking steps to accomplish a pressing task: ensuring the stability and integrity of our country. We must deal with complex and comprehensive problems that we inherited. This is something Americans should understand well.

In my view, it is a sign of maturity in the Russian-U.S. relationship that our presidents and governments can discuss any issue -- our concerns and yours -- in a candid and constructive way. Nothing, including democracy, is off the table. The Russian side is open to criticism when it is substantiated -- and is intended to help and promote mutual understanding rather than to score points or put Russia on the defensive. But it is inadmissible to move in the direction of demonizing Russia. As far as we are concerned, we seek to convey our point of view, when it differs from the American view, in a respectful manner, rather than to try to use a disagreement to undermine America's image or interests.

Bush has often described the task of building democracy as part of a long-term agenda. In his inaugural address, he added that the democratic institutions established in other nations may be different from America's, reflecting the diversity of culture and traditions in today's world. Indeed, there cannot and should not be a sole standard for democracy -- one that is tailored by a single state or a group of states. That should be obvious to everyone.

I hope that more Americans, and more Russians, will find ways to discuss our differences openly, constructively, as friends. The alternative -- our estrangement -- would benefit neither nation. In a world where potentially devastating terrorist attacks remain a threat to both our countries, the stakes are high. There are other threats and challenges that Russia and the United States have to act on shoulder to shoulder to make our world safer and more secure. This demanding task, which should set up a new bilateral agenda for four more years, will surely be a focus of this week's discussions in Bratislava.

The writer is Russia's ambassador to the United States.

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