By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
PRAGUE, June 5 -- President Bush declared Tuesday that Russia has "derailed" democratic reforms and that the United States would continue to press it on this issue. The remarks, his most pointed public comments about civil liberties in Russia, came at a time of heightened tensions with Moscow.
"In Russia, reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Bush said at a conference organized by current and former dissidents in Prague, scene of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism in what was then Czechoslovakia.
"In areas where we share mutual interests, we work together," Bush said in comments that he applied to Russia and China. "In other areas, we have strong disagreements." The audience included Vaclav Havel, a leading figure in the Velvet Revolution and first president of the Czech Republic, and Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident whose writing about the universality of liberty has been described by Bush as a major influence on him.
Bush's criticism followed several broadsides against the United States and its European allies by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. They have employed Cold War-style rhetoric to object to a missile defense system that the United States wants to install in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Putin said over the weekend that Russia would consider re-aiming its missiles at targets in Europe if the United States proceeds with its plans.
Earlier in the day, while speaking to reporters alongside Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, Bush sought to assuage Russian concerns about the system. He restated his position that it is meant to counter "rogue" states such as Iran that could attack Europe and urged Russia to join in the effort.
"It is a purely defensive measure aimed not at Russia, but at true threats," Bush said after emerging from a meeting with the Czech leaders at the 9th-century Prague Castle, which overlooks this city.
Bush plans to meet with Putin on Thursday at the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Germany and in July at the Bush family compound in Maine.
"My message will be, 'Vladimir' -- I call him Vladimir -- 'that you shouldn't fear a missile defense system,' " Bush said. "As a matter of fact, why not participate with us on a missile defense system? Why don't you cooperate with us?" Bush said Putin should send military leaders and scientists to the United States to review plans for the system.
Some analysts suspect Putin worries that the antimissile system could be expanded to counter Russia's much larger missile force.
On Tuesday afternoon, the White House e-mailed reporters a statement Putin made in 2000 to then-NBC anchor Tom Brokaw indicating support for a shared antimissile system.
"Such mechanisms are possible if we pool our efforts and direct them towards neutralizing the threats against the United States, Russia, our allies, or Europe, in general," Putin said in the interview. "We have such proposals, and we intend to discuss them with President Clinton."
While Bush and Putin argue, the House and Senate have taken steps to block or limit funds for European elements of the missile defense plan.
The House version of the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill has eliminated the $160 million to prepare for construction of 10 silos for U.S. missile interceptors in Poland but would permit work on the interceptors and on a radar system to be based in the Czech Republic.
The Senate has yet to act, but its Armed Services Committee would prohibit spending that money until final agreements have been reached with both countries and the committee approves them.
The 10 missiles have not yet been developed. The plan envisages them as a two-stage version of the three-stage long-range interceptors being deployed at a U.S. base in Alaska while undergoing tests.
U.S. intelligence officials have said it would be between 2010 and 2015 before Iran could have a missile with a nuclear warhead capable of threatening Europe or the continental United States.
In testimony before Congress in April, Pentagon officials said the Poland-based interceptors will not be tested before 2010, one year before their scheduled deployment in that country.
Last month, a State Department official told a House hearing that two tests were scheduled before 2010 and that deployment was planned for 2013.
Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has overseen new controls on the news media and nongovernmental organizations, a centralization of government and the economy, and the marginalization of the political opposition.
In his speech, Bush said that despite the recent strain in relations, American influence would nudge Russia -- and China -- along the road to democracy. "The United States will continue to build our relationship with these countries -- and we will do it without abandoning our principles or our values," Bush said. He also vowed to push "valued partners" Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt "toward freedom."
Bush reaffirmed his commitment to his administration's struggling "freedom agenda," calling it the "most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism." He denounced "the world's worst dictatorships," including Belarus, Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Bush cited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as crucial battles in the drive to spread democracy.
"In my second inaugural address, I pledged America to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," Bush said. "Some have said that qualifies me as a 'dissident president.' If standing for liberty in the world makes me a dissident, then I'll wear the title with pride."
"It's the most eloquent speech on the universal values of human rights that any American president has ever given. And yet it comes from a president who has given human rights a bad name around the world," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "It's tragic that this president doesn't have the moral authority anymore to promote these values. His policies have led many people to become very cynical about America's commitment to the values of freedom."
"The reality is the initiative is in disarray," said Grant Aldonas, a former Bush administration official and now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You know, following the outcome of Iraq postwar, when you travel the world, people react with cynicism when you talk about freedom and democracy at this point."
Bush acknowledged that "there will be triumphs and failures, progress and setbacks. Ending tyranny cannot be achieved overnight."
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.