President Bush met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, intending to register alarm about a new Kremlin campaign to tighten control over Russian democracy, U.S. officials said.
The session between the leaders, on the sidelines of an Asian economic summit that opens here Friday, was scheduled as Russia moved to shut down foreign-funded human rights groups and research organizations and to impose tight regulations on domestic nongovernmental organizations.
The matter would once again put Bush and Putin at odds over the course of Russia's fragile civil society at a time when Bush has vowed to promote freedom and democracy around the world. Putin's campaign to consolidate power at home has frequently shadowed his meetings with Bush. At the same time, Bush has tried to preserve his friendship with Putin, cemented in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Legislation endorsed by Putin's cabinet and co-sponsored by his political party would bar foreign nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, from operating offices in Russia and require all 450,000 of them to re-register with the state to ensure that they do not engage in foreign-funded political activity. Putin's government has taken over independent television, eliminated election of governors, driven pro-Western parties out of parliament and prosecuted business magnates who challenged his administration.
The legislation's sponsors in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, characterize internationally financed NGOs as a "fifth column" doing the bidding of foreigners in Russia, evidently concerned that they could provide sustenance for an opposition movement much like those that launched revolutions in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine.
Among the foreign groups that could be shut down if the legislation is enacted are the Carnegie Moscow Center, the most prominent research organization in Russia; Human Rights Watch, which has criticized government brutality in Chechnya; and the Ford Foundation, which finances projects intended to build a civil society and fight AIDS.
"We have some pretty serious concerns about it, both the legislation itself and how it would be implemented," a Bush administration official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. If Bush does bring it up, the official said, the message would be that "there's nothing to fear about foreign NGOs."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they met here Wednesday, according to another U.S. official. In his fifth meeting of the year with Putin, Bush planned to discuss it along with a variety of other issues on the U.S.-Russian agenda, including what to do about nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, their shared fight against terrorism and Russia's aspiration to join the World Trade Organization.
Bush has come under pressure at home to address the NGO matter with Putin. Two former vice presidential candidates, Republican Jack Kemp and Democrat John Edwards, sent a letter to the president calling the Kremlin move "a disturbing new challenge" to private nonprofit groups in Russia that draw support from the United States.
"The impact of this measure, if it became law, should be obvious: it would roll back pluralism in Russia and curtail contact between our societies," wrote Kemp and Edwards, who serve as co-chairmen of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on Russia. "It would mark a complete breach of the commitment to strengthen such contact that President Putin made when you and he met in Bratislava," the capital of Slovakia, in February.
Kemp and Edwards noted that Russia will host the Group of Eight major nations next year and said that the NGO crackdown "raises an almost unthinkable prospect -- that the president of Russia might serve as chairman of the G-8 at the same time that laws come into force in his country to choke off contacts with global society."
Sarah Mendelson, a Russia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, said Bush and other G-8 leaders should raise the issue with Putin. "The representatives of these countries in Moscow ought to deliver letters to the Duma and the presidential administration saying how outside the norms of the G-8 this sort of thing is," she said.
The meeting with Putin highlights a day of summitry in this gritty port city as the leaders of 21 countries gather to open the annual conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC.
Bush hopes to use the summit to kick-start troubled global trade talks and secure a regional agreement to combat a possible avian flu pandemic. Anti-globalization activists vowed to gather tens of thousands of protesters in the streets to demonstrate against Bush and the trade organization.
Bush met with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Thursday and planned to get together separately with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Saturday. After the summit, Bush is scheduled to fly to Beijing to meet with China's president, Hu Jintao, on Sunday, then plans to stop in Mongolia on Monday en route home.