BRATISLAVA, Slovakia, Feb. 24 -- President Bush urged President Vladimir Putin to reinvigorate Russia's fragile democracy Thursday and then accepted Putin's word when the former KGB colonel insisted he was not turning his country back toward totalitarianism.
Taking a gentle approach in the first application of his inaugural pledge to challenge foreign leaders to promote freedom, Bush said he raised his concerns about Putin's crackdown on political opposition "in a constructive and friendly manner" and emphasized that overall the two agreed more than they disagreed.
"Vladimir heard me loud and clear," Bush said.
At a joint appearance after a 2 1/2-hour summit at a medieval castle here, Putin disavowed any autocratic aspirations. "Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy," he said, referring to the break with Soviet dictatorship 14 years ago. "This is our final choice, and we have no way back. . . . Any kind of turn toward totalitarianism for Russia would be impossible due to the condition of Russian society."
Bush, capping a five-day European trip, pronounced himself pleased without securing any specific commitments or directly contradicting any of Putin's points. "The most important statement that you heard, and I heard, was the president's statement when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia and they're not turning back," Bush said. He went on to vouch for Putin's credibility. "When he tells you something, he means it."
The two leaders also jointly announced measures to counter the threat of nuclear terrorism, although a key element of the plan was weakened at the last minute.
The encounter was the first face-to-face meeting between the two presidents since Bush vowed in his second inaugural address last month to confront "every ruler and every nation" about internal repression and condition U.S. relations with other countries on the state of their democracy. Putin -- who has canceled elections, jailed opponents, driven pro-Western democratic parties out of parliament, taken over national television and effectively renationalized Russia's largest oil company -- offered the first test case, according to U.S. congressional leaders and advocacy groups.
At the beginning of his European trip this week, Bush agreed that the United States and Europe should "place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia." To speak more candidly, U.S. officials say, Bush met with Putin on Thursday for more than an hour alone with only translators, their longest ever one-on-one session, before joining aides for nearly another hour and a half.
In their subsequent public appearance, though, Bush took a mild, unprovocative approach, underscoring the challenge of nudging an ally without alienating him. He hailed the "tremendous progress" in Russia and the "amazing transformation of the nation," giving Putin credit. "I applaud President Putin for dealing with a country that is in transformation," he said.
He stressed that they had "a lot of common ground" and that he empathized with Putin's challenge in dealing with terrorist attacks. "I know the strain, I know the agony, I know the sadness, I know the emotion that comes with seeing innocent people lose their lives, and we have shared that," Bush said.
When it came to Russia's reeling democracy, Bush acknowledged Putin's argument that Russian history is unique, agreeing that democracy must "reflect a country's customs and culture." Then, without citing any actions in Russia, Bush added, "But democracies have certain things in common: They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition."
In response, Putin said, "We are not going to invent any kind of special Russian democracy." But he added that democracy has to fit "our history and our traditions," meaning it "should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people." Still, he promised to consider Bush's point. "I believe that some of his ideas could be taken into account in my work, and I will pay due attention to them, for sure. Some other ideas, I will not comment on."
While Bush accepted Putin's reassurance, the Russian leader's former prime minister broke with Putin, complaining that Russia had turned away from democratic values. "Looking at the past year, I have come to the conclusion that Russia is not relying on any of these values," Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister for four years, said at a Moscow news conference. "The path has changed. It has taken the wrong turn, which harms and has a negative impact on the country's economic and social development."
Some analysts were not surprised by Bush's gentle style. "Bush finds a standard political ploy -- making a harsh statement prior to the meeting so that no one can accuse him of not raising contentious issues, while the meeting itself will indeed proceed in the light of that statement, but in a calm working atmosphere," said Boris Makarenko, deputy director of Moscow's Center for Political Technologies.