Both Vladimir Putin and President Bush can come away from their meeting in Slovakia claiming they accomplished their mission, at least in the short term, but the patches they placed on the bruised Russian-American relationship will be no antidote against further disagreement and drift.
Outlines for closer cooperation on security and economic issues await concrete action, and Putin’s vow to pursue democratic principles — couched by a caveat about his country’s traditions, and clouded by his defense of last autumn’s changes that curtailed direct elections — are far from a guarantee of a change of course.
But he gave a glowing assessment Friday of the meeting, saying it set an agenda for cooperation in the coming years.
“We are satisfied with the talks and their results. I have the feeling that our American partners would have the same assessment,” Putin said at a news conference with Slovakia’s president. “The meeting went in a very positive way, in its character and in the chosen themes.”
Putin said he had spoken to Bush for at least an hour in what he called a “very useful, very substantive discussion” focusing on Russian-American relations.
'Very close positions'
Putin made no specific mention of Bush’s expression of concern about his commitment to democracy.
“I must say that on practically all questions we have very close positions,” he said, adding that the two agreed on cooperation to strengthen the security of nuclear materials and installations, and to “intensify our work in the anti-terrorist direction.”
“I highly value the results” of the one-on-one talks, said Putin, adding that he and Bush “determined an agenda for the coming three-four years” they have left in office.
Both presidents clearly came to their meeting Thursday determined to portray overall ties as trumping day-to-day disputes.
Bush, who headed home after a fence-mending trip across Europe that ended with his meeting with Putin in Bratislava, can check off the two main items on his to-do list for Russia: He brought the message of concern about Putin’s commitment to democracy straight to the source, and he won pledges of closer cooperation against terrorism and weapons proliferation.
His approach seemed to balance pressure from politicians and activists calling for harsher criticism of Putin on issues of human rights and freedoms, with advice from those who say that the pace of Russia’s movement toward — or away from — democracy should not prevent the nuclear-armed nations from working together on common goals.
Putin says committed to democracy
Putin, meanwhile, may count the meeting as a success because he won a statement of Bush’s intention to pursue productive ties during his second term. Buffeted by increasingly vocal U.S. criticism ahead of the meeting, Russian officials sought to steer the focus toward cooperation on security.
Putin must have expected pressure from Bush on democracy, and he got some — the Russian leader said they discussed the issue at length, and Bush stressed that “strong countries are built by developing strong democracies.”
Putin responded by saying that Russia’s decision to pursue democracy was a final choice.
“There will be no return,” he said.
That’s a formula heard from the Kremlin repeatedly since the 1991 Soviet collapse, first from Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin and most recently from Putin himself earlier this week.
But Bush pointed to it as an important product of the meeting, saying that Putin is a man of his word.
More strikingly, Putin promised to pursue common democratic values, saying that his country will not seek some kind of “special Russian democracy.”
But, almost in the same breath, he hedged that vow by saying that democratic principles must fit Russia’s history, traditions and level of development, and be implemented in a way that strengthens the state. He also defended his decision to scrap gubernatorial elections, and made no indication that he plans any specific changes that would ease Western concerns.
Agreement on nuclear security
That leaves plenty of room for further disputes on democracy, which could continue to create tension and hamper cooperation on other issues.
Russian and U.S. officials signed an agreement aimed to curb trafficking in shoulder-fired missile systems and announced initiatives to step up cooperation on nuclear security, increase U.S. investment in Russian energy projects and Russian energy exports to the United States, and move forward in talks on Moscow’s effort to join the World Trade Organization.
The presidents also told their governments to enhance cooperation on anti-terror measures, space exploration and humanitarian affairs, including the fight against AIDS.
But these agreements and instructions will require painstaking work, and progress is likely to reflect the overall tone of ties.