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Bush Under Pressure to Confront Putin

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page A17

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia, Feb. 23 -- As President Bush wraps up his five-day visit to Europe on Thursday with a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovakia, he faces increasing pressure to confront his Russian counterpart over a series of moves viewed as a retreat from democracy.

During his swing through three European nations aimed at patching up transatlantic relations, he has repeatedly returned to his oft-stated theme of spreading democracy around the world. Putin, meanwhile, has rolled back democracy in his nation by eliminating elections of provincial governors, imprisoning critics, restricting news coverage and ousting opposition members of parliament.

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"There is a shared concern on both sides of the Atlantic, in Europe and the U.S., about recent trends in Russia," said Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia at the Brookings Institution.

But whatever desire Bush may have to deal sternly with Putin will be tempered by Russia's vital role on issues crucial to the United States. They include the war on terrorism, working to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions and the ongoing effort to secure nuclear materials across the former Soviet Union.

After their meeting, Bush and Putin were to announce a series of measures aimed at countering the threat of nuclear terrorism, according to U.S. officials familiar with the accord.

While some Bush advisers want him to press Putin about democracy, others worry that pressing him too hard could jeopardize Russian help on other important matters.

"I mean, it's a complex relationship," said Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley. "Look, we have a very constructive relationship with Russia; we have to start with that. . . . The two presidents, working together, have solved a number of problems in the relationship and have also identified some important areas of collaboration where we are collaborating."

During a speech in Brussels this week, Bush called on European nations to "place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia." At the same time, Bush and his aides have made it clear that the president understands that democracies take a long time to mature and develop.

"I think it's important to say that for all the discussion there has been about Russian democracy, this is not the Soviet Union you're seeing," Hadley said. "That's history."

In Mainz, Germany, on Wednesday, Bush met with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and the two leaders agreed that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. "It's vital that the Iranians hear the world speak with one voice that they shouldn't have a nuclear weapon," Bush said. Schroeder concurred but added, "This means there needs to be movement on both sides."

In Tehran, Iranian officials on Wednesday repeated their denials of any plans to produce nuclear weapons, while insisting that they had the right to pursue nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment.

Bush's nine-hour visit to Mainz stirred protests by several thousand demonstrators opposed to the war in Iraq. Fifteen years ago, his father was warmly received during a presidential visit to the city on the Rhine River.

Security was extremely tight in Mainz. Police sealed the road leading into the city from the airport. Helicopters flew overhead, and a wooded area along the route was lined with police officers standing about 10 yards apart to protect Bush's route. Most of the shops in the picturesque city were shuttered for the day.

Soon after his arrival, Bush and Schroeder stood shoulder to shoulder in a light snow as a German military band played the U.S. and German national anthems. The two leaders then marched down a red carpet to inspect an honor guard at the Electoral Palace.

After meeting with Schroeder, Bush had lunch with area business leaders and then participated in a roundtable discussion with local young professional people. Afterward, Bush and his wife, Laura, visited the Gutenberg Museum, where they were shown a vintage printing press by a docent dressed in 15th-century garb.

Later, Bush delivered a pep talk on the Iraq war to thousands of cheering and whistling U.S. troops in Wiesbaden, Germany. Most of the troops were attached to the 1st Armored Division, and some had seen Bush when he made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad in 2003.

"There is only one option for victory," Bush told the soldiers. "We must take the fight to the enemy."

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